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The Passion According to Saint Franco

New York
Metropolitan Opera
03/30/2008 -  and April 1*, 5, 9, 12, 15, 18
Giacomo Puccini: La Bohème
Angela Gheorghiu (Mimì), Ainhoa Arteta (Musetta), Ramón Vargas (Rodolfo), Ludovic Tézier (Marcello), Quinn Kalseyu (Schaunard), Oren Gradus (Colline), Paul Plishka (Benoit/Alcindoro), Robert Maher (Sergeant), Meredith Derr (Parpignol), Raymond Aparentado (Prugne di Tours)
Metropolitan Chorus, Don Palumbo (Director), Metropolitan Orchestra, Nicola Luisotti (Conductor)
Franco Zeffirelli (Production and Set Designer), Peter J. Hall (Costume Designer), Gil Wechsler (Lighting Designer)

The four-column headline of the NY Times' review last week resembled a business page story about mortgage disasters. “Zeffirelli ‘s La Bohème for the 379th Time”. As if anybody cared about records for this ever-living grand, grand paean to passion at its most passionate. Actually, I did care, since I had not seen a single one of the 347, having been abroad during this time. So, last night was particularly advantageous, as I could see and hear it with open ears and open eyes.

And yes, Angela Gheorghiu was not only a gorgeous Mimì, but she had the fervent dark and even mysterious voice to match. One can’t quite put together the timid ham-fisted little Mimì from Act I (“Where’s my key? I’m really cold. Whoops, the candle’s gone out”) with the so-passionate Addio dolce … of Act III. For Ms. Gheorghiu is not only tall, ravishingly beautiful and a superb actress, but she can be intimidating as well. Her voice is not only strong, but she can paint the notes of her low register like the painter Marcello.

Is she another Callas? The films of the great Maria show a woman whose music and feelings come from her very depths. Ms. Gheorghiu plays with the same emotions, with the same ardor with equal musicianship, yet one has the feeling she is playing. It still works, it still makes great theatre.

Next to her, Ramón Vargas’s Rodolfo was pure lyric tenor, purely lilting, very touching in the third act, and touching in the finale. He is one of the stalwarts of opera, a great tenor in one of the greatest tenor roles.

But when it comes to remembering this well-directed, constantly moving production, the one voice I will always remember is Ainhoa Arteta as Musetta. Granted, Musetta, unlike Mimì, can let her heart and her voice out as much as possible, and never overdo it. But Ms. Arteta was like an operatic Barbara Streisand. She was brassy and brazen, more than a coquette, she could be an evil little flirt. Ms. Arteta has also played Mimì, but I was thrilled to see her Musetta, not only in the waltz, but as part of that wonderful quartet which ends the second art.

Among the others, Oren Gradus as Colline had the most terrific bass voice and the only real humor in the opera. Vecchia zimarra, his passionate ode to his overcoat (to be sold for helping Mimì) could have been played more broadly, but his bass voice was superb.

Onto Zeffirelli ‘s 11-year-old production. The director has been chastised as the “furniture” decorator, but the middle two acts overcame anything against this iconic figure. Act II with the complete chorus in incredibly good 1830’s Parisian garments, crowded against the two layers of a Paris street (opening onto the Café Momus) with the excitement of a movie tableau.

But it was Act III, where Zeffirelli excelled himself. Not just the snow, which poured down at the beginning and end, not just the snowdrifts outside the tavern, not just the desolation of the desolate lovers. No, it was the silence of figures in the background, some carrying umbrellas, some walking hatless… They were almost unseen, almost shadows, resembling at times a Renoir garden scene, albeit with the grey-white stillness of a Japanese brumal etching.

Will the Met ever change the Zeffirelli production? Perhaps, for life goes on. Yet, this realistic version is tumultuous, touching, and tragic together. Both Zeffirelli and Puccini understood emotions and art. And this is enough.




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