Met’s beloved “Bohème” marks 40th anniversary with a notable conductor debut

Wed Nov 10, 2021 at 2:02 pm
Charles Castronovo and Anita Hartig star in Puccini’s La Bohème at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Marty Sohl

The Metropolitan Opera’s standby of standbys, Franco Zeffirelli’s production of Puccini’s La Bohème, celebrated 40 rambunctious and tear-stained years Tuesday night with a sterling debut—this time not onstage, but in the pit.

The Korean maestra Eun Sun Kim, new music director of the San Francisco Opera, arrived at last on the Met podium, trailing a long list of international credits, and led a rendition of Puccini’s comic-tragic score that captured all its youthful energy and timeless longing.

The production, which made its bow on December 14, 1981, with James Levine conducting and Renata Scotto, José Carreras, Teresa Stratas and other notables in the cast, looked as spectacular and wintry as ever. The audience applauded each raising of the curtain as if welcoming an old friend.

A cast of capable and well-matched singers made the composer’s lines soar, and if acting was not generally the strong suit in this lineup, well, who goes to La Bohème for the acting? Still, between the pathbreaking realism of the libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, and Zeffirelli’s cinematic staging, there are theatrical values in this piece that often take a back seat to the music.

For example, managing the contrapuntal lovers’ quarrels of Acts II and III onstage for clarity is a challenge that revival director Gregory Keller didn’t always meet. And it would be good for once to enjoy Act IV’s mock-fight on the rooftops as a carefree scamper, rather than wonder if the Met is paid up on its liability insurance.

But all went unerringly in the pit, as conductor Kim traced the opera’s whipsawing moods with a winning combination of precision and flexibility. Wherever there was a particular felicity or plot twist in Puccini’s scoring, she made sure it was heard. The pacing of the musical action, whether adagio or scherzando, never flagged.

It was not a night for star turns onstage—applause in the expected places, no ovations—but a consistently high level of singing made for an ensemble drama.

Puccini, in effect, composed two Mimìs: the shy, tentative outward girl, and the ecstatic, passionate woman within. Soprano Anita Hartig handled the seamstress’s transitions seamlessly, modulating vocally between a slim stream of sound and gleaming crescendos, and expiring touchingly in the last act.

Tenor Charles Castronovo matched her vocally, his top notes ringing through the hall, as he played a rather straight-up Rodolfo, his strength a foil for Mimì’s fragility.

Marcello, friend to all and lover to none (except the capricious Musetta), was a sturdy presence, thanks to Artur Ruciński’s clear, well-supported baritone.

Roommates Schaunard and Colline, ably sung by baritone Alexander Birch Elliott and bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee, kept the action and the repartee going, the latter delivering an understated farewell to his winter coat before selling it to buy medicine for Mimì.

As Mimì’s female foil, the headstrong, pleasure-seeking Musetta, soprano Federica Lombardi took her waltz aria at a slow, presumably sultry tempo. But the character’s personality didn’t really come across the footlights, and there were some problems with audibility in her soft singing in Act IV.

Baritone Donald Maxwell had an effective comic turn as the hapless landlord Benoit in Act I, but was somewhat lost in the tumult of Act II as Musetta’s rich old lover Alcindoro.

And of course, no Met Bohème could exist without the elaborate choreography and well-drilled singing of the Met chorus in the spectacular Act II.

As it nears its 500th performance, this production, an opera touchstone for beginning listeners and experts alike, remains in good hands onstage. And in the pit, better than good with this notable debut.

La Bohème runs through December 3 with the current cast and conductor. Additional performances are scheduled for January and May 2022.; 212-362-6000.

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