Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera
Puccini's "La Boheme" is arguably the most popular opera in the world. The Metropolitan Opera usually showcases the work every season (expect for last season) and despite its enduring appeal, the work has lost some of its allure due to its constant repetition. However, the company assembled a terrific group of singers for the iconic work this season; the performance on Saturday, March 29 was easily one of the finest "Boheme's" in the Met's recent history.
Critics have gone on about how overindulgent Franco Zeffirelli's epic production is ever since its inception. On one level, one might understand the notion that the production is so large that it could be at odds with arguably the most intimate of all operas. Some might argue that the constant buzz throughout the stage, particularly in Act 2, could be distracting. But there can be no denying the vibrancy and life that the production brings to the work, even after decades of dominating the Met stage. Just look at the second act with realistic depiction of a Parisian square; life is everywhere. Every detail has been choreographed and the viewer cannot help but feel transported to this world in its hyperrealism. The third act, which is far more nuanced, is dominated by the snowy landscape and somehow makes the entire theater feel colder. Even if the critics have tired of the sets, it is clear from the deafening applause at the start of each act that the audience is still in love. The brilliance of Zeffirelli's production was heightened by the cast, which seemed to savor the larger spaces; there was energy and youth about this "Boheme" that has been rare in the last few years.
Anita Hartig made her Met debut a week ago in the title role and brought a wondrous dramatic truth to vocal and physical characterization. From the outset, it was clear that her Mimi was a rather timid creature; her slow movements also suggested her frailty. After entering the apartment in the first act, she immediately sat at the table with her head down for a few moments; there was no doubt that she was in the process of eroding physically. Her voice was utterly beautiful not only in its expression of Mimi's angelic nature but also in depicting her illness. She sang with utmost delicacy throughout, almost like a woman growing increasingly weaker as the night wore on.
During her first aria, "Si! Mi chiamano Mimi," her singing was initially characterized by its freeness with the melodic lines. Her voice constantly crescendoed and then diminuendoed quickly as if expressing Mimi's desire to full reveal herself, but also her continuing timid nature. At one point she made a gorgeous sostenuto on "quelle cose," the high note sung in a mezza voce that lingered a while. As she finished the phrase she added a coquettish accent to the word "poesia," as if she were playing with the word in the presence of Rodolfo, a poet. Another rather remarkable passage of vocal acting from Hartig came during her "ma prego assai al Signor"; the phrases that precede this moment are rather playful in the vocal line and orchestra, but the final phrase is a delicate one.
Hartig made her delivery of this line a major contrast to what preceded it; the phrase took on a new meaning and hinted at the pain over her impending tragedy. The phrase repeats itself again, this time ending on "e in cielo"; the singing betrayed pain over the idea of death. Her voice clung to the final note of "cielo" as if she did not want to let go of her hopes of living. The ensuing "Ma quando vien lo sgelo" was Hartig's first major emotional outburst; her voice was pushed to its glorious limits and the singing was filled with longing and tremendous nostalgia, almost as if Mimi wondered whether she would ever get to see the spring again; the final note of "il primo Baccio dell'aprile e mio" had a withering diminuendo that furthered this notion of loss in Mimi's character. There was a rather sharp pause between this note and the ensuing phrases that furthered this idea.
The singing in "Si! Mi Chiamano Mimi" was a masterpiece of vocal characterization, but Hartig did not stop there as her performance was filled with a never-ending display of emotional insight and nuance. During her passage "Rodolfo m'ama e mi fugge" her voice wept with increasing intensity as it drove toward the climactic "Ahime! Ahime!"; at this apex, her voice seared with visceral pain and desperation. The ensuing "Donde lieto" had a delicate sweetness in the opening phrases, but even then it was clear that there was an underlying emotional battle between the pain of the character and her attempt to put on her strongest face for her lover. The end of the phrase "a intesser finti fior" was held out with a precious diminuendo that expressed what Mimi believes to be the death of her love affair with Rodolfo. The ensuing "Addio, senza rancor" had a cautiousness, almost as if Mimi were trying to calm Rodolfo down. The ensuing sections had a brightness in the sound quality, further showcasing Mimi at her most positive in such a tough situation. During the "Bada, sotto il guanclate," the tone shifted toward a more melancholic sound; the tempo was also stretched a bit to express this emotion and the idea of Mimi holding onto the memory a bit longer. By the final phrases of the aria, the emotion took over and the final "addio, addio senza rancor" was delivered with muted sadness.
In the final act, the transformation was complete. Hartig's movements were restrictive at best and her voice was thin and frail. The musical lines were still polished and refined in their execution, but the vocal color was completely different from anything that had come before; it had an otherworldly quality that suggested that Mimi was halfway dead. The effect was of a gradual vocal diminuendo throughout the act with occasional peaks; but even then the volume of the peaks showed more restraint than those showcased earlier. One of the most wonderful staging moments took place in this particular scene. As Rodolfo's friends exit the apartment to leave them alone, a gorgeous orchestral interlude plays. Rodolfo, played by Vittorio Grigolo, moved toward the door with his back to the bed; he was completely lost in thought. Hartig's Mimi slowly rose from the bed and extended her arm to reach for her lover; there was helplessness to the action that made it all the more wrenching and powerful.
Hartig was terrific with Grigolo as the voices of the two melted into one another gorgeously. Their Act 1 duet "O Soave fanciulla" was splendid in the two singers' abilities to achieve a striking balance that is rarely ever found; the duo matched pitch perfectly on the fearsome high C at the end of the passage. The ensemble "Dunque e proprio finite" in Act 3 was even more wondrous as the two singers sounded like one throughout; nowhere was this more apparent than in the final phrase of the act "Ci lasceremo all stagion dei fior" where every single utterance was unified perfectly. The Act 4 duet "Sono andati" was riveting in the terrific emotional exchange between the two; the connection seemed to be at its most heightened in this particular moment, adding to a painful tragedy.
Grigolo gave a trademark performance of utmost commitment. Grigolo's singing has caught a lot of attention around the world, not only for its volume but for its fullness of color. The tenor has stated that Rodolfo is among his favorite roles to sing and that "La Boheme" is a "perfect opera"; his passion for the music was on full display on Saturday. His "Che Gelida Manina" was full of warmth and intensity; the "chi son e che faccio" featured a high note that rung with vibrant enthusiasm. The end of that phrase included a pleasant diminuendo. The ensuing section "In poverta mia lieta" was sung softly and elegantly, hinting at Rodolfo's sensitivity. But then the tenor let his voice go at full throttle at "Talor dal mio forziere," with the vocal line expressing tremendous longing. The climactic high C on "la speranza" was beautiful to behold as is it rang over the full orchestra.
The final lines "Vi piaccia dir" had a longing to them that expressed Rodolfo's vulnerability to the maximum; it was fascinating to watch the character transform from a man full of confidence to one with his heart on his sleeve. Grigolo also showcased tremendous control of his voluminous voice as he rang over the massive ensemble in Act 2 at its apex. During the final phrases of Act 3, Grigolo made a glorious diminuendo on "alla stagion di fior" that was filled with remorse and dread at losing Mimi. His voice wept throughout "Sono andati" in Act 4 and the final utterances of "Mimi!" were heartbreaking to endure. With the first cry, Grigolo pushed his voice to the brink of its resources; the second was more subdued but equally painful. Even when he was not singing, his acting expressed every nuance of the character. During Mimi's aria, he jumped out of his seat when she mentioned that she lived alone, a rather genuine reveal of Rodolfo's interest in this mysterious girl. Even the more subtle stares at her expressed his longing for her throughout this act.
During the opening of the Act 4 duet "Oh Mimi, tu piu non torni," he picked up a flower, admired it for a moment and then threw it out the window and watched it fall upon the rooftops; there was a tremendous melancholy in this one moment that made it so memorable. As Mimi lay dying, Grigolo's Rodolfo moved about trying to find a place to situate himself; the unrest could not be more aptly expressed. As the opera drew to a close, he thrust himself onto the floor by Mimi's bed, his back to the audience in that extremely tragic moment. Grigolo also reveled in the more entertaining portions of the work. He leapt onto a table as he prepared to burn his drama. He picked up a chair ready to nail Benoit with it moments later and danced around at the start of Act 4.
The rest of the cast was spot on. Jennifer Rowley was a charismatic Musetta. Her entrance in Act 2 was marked by terrifically rambunctious behavior that included a piercing, but appropriate, scream when she pretended to have pain on her foot. In that same act she toyed with Marcello to emphasize her power; at one point she twirled her arm around him and watched his head spin around in circles. The singing in the "Quando men vo soletta per la via" had sensuality in the silky legato lines that occasionally featured pointed accents and excited high notes; there was certain frenzy at the apex of the phrases that further emphasized her excitable nature. There was also a viciousness in the character as she threw plates on the floor and bullied Marcello in the third act argument; during this particular scene she seemed to relish the insults that she tossed his way. In many ways it seemed that she was playing with him; it was a truly refreshing approach to the comical scene. Rowley's appearance in the final act showcased a completely changed Musetta. She was gentle in her singing and pleading in her gazes toward Marcelo. Their hug in the final moments of the opera, provided some hope for their reconciliation, but also emphasized the pain they were both enduring.
Massimo Cavalletti managed to create a vulnerable Marcello with a seeming underdog quality about him. He looked overwhelmed by Musetta as she seduced him and his emotional outcry at the climax of her waltz expressed a sensitivity that furthered this notion of him being a puppet to his passions. In the third act, as she bullied him, he looked rather defenseless and his quick reactions to her insults showed that each one of her words was a major blow to his character. This pain all came to the four in the opening duet of Act 4; Cavalletti's rugged voice was filled with nostalgia and a sense of loss.
That sense of loss was also beautifully depicted by Nicolas Teste's Colline during his famed "Vecchia zimarra, senti." Teste's voice caressed each phrase, underlying a far deeper meaning than just the loss of the garment; in his pained singing, the listener could grasp Colline's understanding of the tragedy taking place. His final "addio" was held out for a few moments, furthering this sense of loss. Patrick Carfizzi was a charismatic but meditative Schaunard. He tried out a few faux ballet moves at the start of the act, but during the more serious moments he seemed completely lost in thought; there was an intense commitment in these subtle actions that made his performance memorable. The Met chorus was fantastic as always and the remaining cast members, especially Philip Cokorinos, were exemplary in their respective solos.
Conductor Stefano Ranzani was extremely flexible throughout the night. He had no fear about following Grigolo's quickening tempi in "Che Gelida Manina" and even sped up the argument between Musetta and Marcello in the quartet at the end of Act 3; these quicker tempi juxtaposed with the slower melodic lines of Rodolfo and Mimi were more effective and striking in portraying the differing tones of the scene. The sound of the orchestra, particularly the strings was lush and vibrant; Puccini's melodies not only exhibited elegance, but also unrelenting passion under his baton.
Most of this cast will reappear on Saturday, April 5 when the opera gets a long-awaited HD broadcast. Judging from the exceptional performance on Saturday night, that worldwide transmission will be one for the ages. Audiences who are able to catch the last few performances of "Boheme" will be treated to an unforgettable night filled with unbridled passion and energy.