With two role debuts, Met’s “Bohème” returns with magic intact

Wed Oct 11, 2023 at 1:47 pm
Frederica Lombardi and Matthew Polenzani star in Puccini’s La bohème at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Richard Termine/Met Opera

Franco Zeffirelli’s production of La bohème returned to the Metropolitan Opera on Tuesday. Audiences still flock to see the staging, a monument to authenticity and excess, even though it has been presented over 500 times since its premiere in 1981. This performance was no exception to the rule. 

Given its scale, the garret where the poet Rodolfo and the painter Marcello try to eke out a living is surprisingly intimate. All of Paris, however, seems to pass through the Latin Quarter as Musetta sheds one lover for another in Act II. The applause starts before the curtains are completely parted to reveal the full expanse of the scene, as it does at the first glimpse of the snow falling at the Barrière d’Enfer at the beginning of the Act II. The detail and prolificacy are magnificent to behold. 

The challenge is to find singers that make an equal, and ideally greater, impact, and the Met did just that, with a cast of house favorites. The novelties were Frederica Lombardi as Mimi and Adam Plachetka as Marcello, both appearing in these roles for the first time at the Met. 

Matthew Polenzani as Rodolfo, Olga Kulchynska as Musetta, and Christian Van Horn, all in fine form, rounded out the cast. To this, add the delightful character actor Donald Maxwell as Benoit and Alcindoro. This was a cast with all pistons firing. 

Tall and thin, almost angular in appearance, Lombardi’s slender frame seemed to rattle with Mimi’s every cough. There was a certain physical gawkiness to Lombardi’s Mimi, which was particularly endearing. This Mimi may have been a simple seamstress, but she had a voice of gold which touched one’s heart. 

This was especially true when Lombardi expressed Mimi’s quieter, more reflective thoughts in soft tones of great beauty. Credit for their effectiveness must also go to the sensitivity of conductor Carlo Rizzi. The final scene in which Mimi returned to the garret to die was etched to perfection by both artists.

The evening’s Rodolfo and Marcello were fashioned from far hardier stock, although with hearts just as fragile as Mimi’s. Polenzani delivered his usual impassioned Rodolfo, although singing with more abandon than usual. His tenor has acquired an attractive bronze sheen with time, which is just fine for Puccini. 

Plachetka’s larger-than-life Marcello also sounded terrific, fueling the exuberance of the opening scene. Full-voiced and ebullient, this Marcello lived and loved in broad brushstrokes. Verismo suits Plachetka, whom Met audiences have heard mostly in Mozart and bel canto roles, save for a fine Captain Balustrade in Britten’s Peter Grimes.

Kulchynska’s Musetta is a spitfire, who chewed up the stage at the Cafe Momus. Vocally, she’s a full-bodied minx, which made her later outbursts of passion and deep expressions of sorrow as lustrous as they were moving. 

High spirits also infused Van Horn’s Colline, who was a bit less somber, but no less philosophical, than in his usual roles at the Met. Van Horn’s farewell to his beloved coat was as poignant and resonant as ever. As Schaunard, Michael Sean Plumb displayed an impressive baritone and a ready smile, who can steal a scene with the best of them. 

Rizzi was an integral part of the drama, and not only in the more intimate moments. Under his baton, the Met orchestra played splendidly. Their sense of timing and expressiveness adding immeasurably to the impact of Puccini’s melodies. The Met Chorus was in fine form, as were the boisterous crowd of children eager to buy toys and experience all the fun on Christmas Eve, to the chagrin of some particularly stern mothers. 

La bohème, with various cast changes, continues through January 10, 2024. metopera.org

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