Agresta’s affecting Mimi brings humanity to the spectacle of Met’s “Boheme”

Fri Jan 10, 2020 at 4:18 pm
Roberto Alagna and Maria Agresta star in Puccini’s La Bohème at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Marty Sohl

There are few operas as instantly relatable as La Bohème, Puccini’s beloved tale of young, broke hipsters living for themselves and each other, and for love or something like it in newly bourgeoisie 19th-century Paris. Anyone raised on Rent, the opera’s East Village rock musical update, or for that matter the sitcom Friends will recognize in La Bohème an ensemble story we tell over and over. 

Everything from West Side Story to MTV’s The Real World to the Dandy Warhols’ sarcastic 2000 ode Bohemian Like You celebrates the thing that Puccini first recognized as both defining and ephemeral: the combined spark of youthful struggle, camaraderie and urban modernity — a bubble that inevitably bursts.

All of which helps to explain why La Bohème is the most returned-to work in the history of the Metropolitan Opera. A performance on Thursday night at Lincoln Center was, by the company’s count, No. 1,340 since an inaugural road production in 1900. Thursday also kicked off the middle series of three separate runs, totaling 16 performances, spread across the current season. 

This mini-opener found La Bohème in fine shape, dramatically, musically and visually. There was eye candy to spare in the staging, crisp conducting by Marco Armiliato, and an endearing cast with a true standout: Maria Agresta as Mimì, Puccini’s fragile, doomed seamstress and iconic love interest, the girl with the frozen hands and warm heart. 

This version of La Bohème is likewise the Met’s most popular show, an almost Dickensian spectacle designed by the Italian filmmaker Franco Zeffirelli that premiered in 1981 and is nearing 500 replays. Its colorful gas-lit mix of Parisian squalor and crowded splendor is almost too on the nose in its nostalgic appeal to New Yorkers who might remember an earlier real estate era of squatting, opportunistic loft conversions and rent control. 

Director Gregory Keller has done a masterful job of keeping the pace brisk through four acts and three sets, notably the riotous Latin Quarter streetscape of Act II, where city dwellers of all walks converge on Christmas Eve to buy food and trinkets from vendors, watch street performers, and to drink and dine and flirt. 

Between this act’s two-tiered set, numerous extras, and vehicles drawn by real animals (a mule and a horse), there are any number of ways that characters, story and singing could get swallowed up. This is where the core cast — as the six young Parisians who form the story’s tightest bonds of love and friendship — demonstrated their strength as actors and singers, and stood out in the surrounding confusion. 

The unquestionable star of Act II is Musetta (soprano Susanna Phillips), the force-of-nature temptress who makes the kind of big, gaudy entrance that Puccini conspicuously denies to his self-effacing heroine Mimì. Phillips’s Musetta is all brassy, unrepentant desire. She dumps her clueless sugar daddy to storm her way back into the heart of her starving-artist ex, painter Marcello (baritone Artur Ruciński), as he sulks at a café with his poet roommate Rodolfo (tenor Roberto Alagna), Rodolfo’s brand new girlfriend Mimì, and their comrades in creative loafing, Colline (bass-baritone Christian Van Horn) and Schaunard (baritone Elliot Madore). 

Phillips’ upper register sounded a little shrill in Musetta’s Waltz Thursday night. But the soprano was a near-perfect embodiment of this Bohemian brat pack at its peak moment of self-indulgent fun — which made her transformation in Act IV all the more striking. Phillips was believable as a more subdued and giving soul facing the prospect of Mimì dying. 

Of course, La Bohème’s centerpiece is the love between Mimi and Rodolfo, who’s so broke that pages of his manuscript are the only fuel on hand to keep his and Marcello’s stove burning in winter. The chance meeting of Rodolfo and Mimì, a downstairs neighbor, in this dingy attic apartment leads to love at first sight, and two of opera’s great arias: Rodolfo’s “Che gelida manina” and Mimì’s “Mi chiamano Mimì.” 

Alagna and Agresta sang these early, soaring showpieces beautifully, and while every aria in La Bohème on Thursday received an ovation, the spontaneous applause for Agresta was arguably the most merited, here and throughout her character’s entire arc. The Italian soprano’s technical prowess — her control of volume and clarity of voice even in the softest, quietest passages — was as sure as her innate feel for Mimì’s bruised but brave emotional core. 

When the relationship with Rodolfo has faltered in Act III, a coughing, consumption-stricken Mimì privately approaches Marcello for help at his new home near the funereal-looking toll gate at the city’s edge. Agresta brought an affecting confessional intimacy to their conversation, and invested her plaintive goodbye to Rodolfo, “Donde lieta usci,” with all the measured feeling that makes it a breakup song of uncommon poise and bittersweetness. 

In the roles of close friends living under one leaky roof, Alagna and Ruciński were a congenial pair. Whether abiding scarcity with good humor, carousing with their buddies, or commiserating over breakups back in the attic where they started, the two sang and performed with a chemistry and rapport that are essential to the story and helped carry it to its heartbreaking close. 

La Bohème demands more of its Rodolfo than its Marcello, and towards the end Alagna’s top notes showed a couple of seams that were more than just a theatrical catch of the throat. But he was a worthy counterpart to Ruciński’s sturdy Marcello and, most critically, Agresta’s Mimì.  

If anyone matched Agresta for pathos, it was bass-baritone Van Horn as Colline singing “Vecchia zimarra,” on the balcony of the attic apartment in Act IV, his tribute to the overcoat he’s about to pawn to help pay for a doctor for Mimì. Like Musetta’s sudden, sobered-up response to Mimì’s illness, it’s a moment of redemption and adult responsibility for the members of this feckless but likable crew, and proof that sometimes there is honor even among hipsters. 

La Bohème continues through January 25, and again from April 29-May 7.; 212-362-6000.

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