Met brings together the season’s finest for a stellar spring “Bohème”

Tue May 17, 2022 at 12:30 pm
By Rick Perdian
Adolf Hohenstein poster for the 1896 world premiere of Puccini’s La bohème.

Monday night’s performance at the Metropolitan Opera felt as if the most discerning of vocal connoisseurs chose the cast from some of the season’s most compelling performances for this final spring run of La bohème. The two pairs of lovers were artists who had triumphed earlier in the season in roles in which they were singing for the first time at the Met. United for only four performances as Puccini’s young bohemians, they were wonderful in every way.

The New Year was rung in by Quinn Kelsey as Rigoletto, who is singing Marcello in the current run, but March was a veritable vocal feast with Eleonora Buratto’s richly sung and compelling performance in Madama Butterfly, Matthew Polenzani combining beauty and sweetness of voice with heroism in his breakthrough performance in the title role of Verdi’s Don Carlos, and Aleksandra Kurzak’s fiery and sumptuously sung Tosca. This was a season when the Met was a true repertoire company with some of opera’s brightest stars able to reveal multiple aspects of their artistry. 

Mimi’s arc of love and death is more muted than that of Cio-Cio San, but the range of emotions is just as great. Buratto was a charming Mimi, who elicited sympathy from her first step over the threshold into Rodolfo’s shabby abode. Her every cough was heartrending, but it was Buratto’s sensitivity to text and line that made her Mimi so exquisite. The bloom in her voice when she first sang so rapturously of springtime to Rodolfo, and later as she recalled those precious moments when dying, was lovely. 

Polenzani was in rare form as Rodolfo, singing with equal parts lyricism, passion and abandon. Now 54, Polenzani’s tenor retains its suppleness and sheen, but the voice has been enriched with greater depth and color since he made his Met debut in a minor role in Boris Godunov in 1997. Polenzani hurled his high notes at the audience, creating those impetuous, visceral thrills that only a tenor can deliver when his emotions run hot. 

As Musetta, Kurzak was as bright and garish as a Valentine’s Day box of candy in human form. Kurzak was a spitfire, who tore up the stage in her grand entrance on a pony cart; smashing dishes came as naturally to this Musetta as did vocal fireworks. The test of any Musetta’s mettle, however, is in the final scene, and there Kurzak melted hearts with the poignancy of her prayer imploring that Mimi’s life be spared.

Kelsey is a subtle, but powerful actor, which combined with his luxurious baritone, made for a compelling Marcello. The baritone effortlessly produced gorgeous sound that encompassed and caressed Puccini’s vocal lines. In many ways, Kelsey was the vocal anchor of this performance, and it was a rare pleasure to see him smile for a change in a lighter role.

As Colline, Nicolas Testé sang a moving farewell to his treasured overcoat. His bass voice is leaner and cleaner than many, and all the more effective for it. Iurii Samoilov was making his Met debut as Schaunard. He’s a singer with vocal allure and charisma to burn. Samoilov never sought the limelight, it naturally falls upon him. Donald Maxwell gave ripe, detailed performances as the equally beset upon Benoit and Alcindoro.

There have undoubtedly been more lyrical readings of La bohème, but few with the clarity, structure and pacing that Eun Sun Kim brought to Puccini’s score. She let its melodies and peaks of emotion unfold naturally, with the orchestra generating as much emotion as any of the singers on stage. The second act was enlivened by especially robust singing from the children in the second act.

The Met is celebrating the 40th anniversary of Franco Zeffirelli’s crowd-pleasing production of La bohème. When the curtain rises on the Latin Quarter, one of the most spectacular sets in the Met’s repertoire, it is still greeted with awe and applause. The snow falling gently on the toll gate at the Barrière d’Enfer at the break of day is just as breathtaking to behold. With this cast, the Met has given it a fine birthday salute.

La bohème continues through May 27.

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