Puccini, La Bohème. Metropolitan Opera, 2/20/2010. Conducted by Marco Armiliato with Anna Netrebko (Mimi), Piotr Beczala (Rodolfo), Gerald Finley (Marcello), Nicole Cabell (Musetta), Shenyang (Colline), Massimo Cavalletti (Schaunard), and a veritable army of children, people on stilts, etc. Directed by J. Knighten Smit after a production by Franco Zeffirelli.
The opera cognoscenti tend to avoid the Met’s La Bohème, a high-calorie Zeffirelli circus guaranteed to never provoke, surprise, disturb, or demand thought (except thought along the lines of "damn, where is Mimì, I CAN’T FIND HER, too much shit on stage"). It’s operatic comfort food. I’m glad that the college students behind me thought it compared favorably to Les Misèrables, because that’s really the level it’s aiming at. I hope these folks return to the opera and see something with a little more thought, and a little more soul. But I'm also glad that they did recognize that THE SINGING WAS AWESOME, OMG.
I was there for that singing. Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczala possess, in terms of sheer vocal sound, two of the lushest, richest, roundest, most beautiful voices in opera today. And both were using their instruments last night very well indeed. This was big, deluxe singing, and added a lot of heart to the determinedly spectacular goings-on. I have hitherto avoided this production because I knew from its reputation that whatever my operatic thing is this is pretty much the opposite of it, but I'm glad I was there last night, I'm glad to go to anything that sounds this good.
I don’t get why Piotr Beczala isn’t a star with the record contract, name recognition, etc. of Villazón, Flórez, Alagna, and co., the world is not fair. Perhaps he lacks a certain degree of onstage star power and isn’t an interpreter of brilliant psychological insight--who can be in this kind of cluttered circus?--but he’s a fine and modest actor and has the most warm, smooth, Italianate lyric tenor voice around. (He does have a CD, which they have at the Met, but it’s not on a major label, who would have gotten him a better cover photo.) And his Rodolfo is really spectacular, with an excellent high C in the aria and in the duet if you’re counting and lovely legato singing throughout. Go hear him even if you hate everyone else, you won't regret it.
Anna Netrebko, of course, is a huge star, and based on this entirely deservedly so. Mimi is a great role for her, and plays to her strengths, which are her luscious sound and stage presence. Her vocal qualities are well known, and I am a big fan of them. Her darkish sound didn’t sound fake to me, it sounded perfect for Puccini, and her high range opens out gloriously in a way in the way I’m always disappointed that Mattila’s doesn’t. I do hope Netrebko is the Puccini Soprano of the Future, she has a great feel for the flow of the music as well as the sound, and her sensitive yet spunky stage presence is excellent for this rep, while it can be a bit forceful for the delicately wilting ladies of bel canto (though personally I like a determined Lucia). She does make some of the lines of the love duet sound unexpectedly dirty. As my heroine of operatic production, La Gaga, puts it, ”I want your ugly, I want your disease." The Lady then added, "WATCH OUT, kids, TB is contagious."
The other bohemians were notably good, above all Gerald Finley’s Marcello, strongly sung and managing to inject a surprising amount of personality into the proceedings (I hear down for the new productions of Onegin and Don G in a few years, which sounds good to me). Single-named Shenyang as Colline gave a very warm and sonorous account of the coat aria. The cast was notably audible, for which I must give credit to Marco Armiliato, who could probably conduct this opera in his sleep and wasn’t reinventing anything but let everyone hold out their nice high notes as they wanted and I could hear most of the chaos in Act 2 relatively clearly.
Nicole Cabell as Musetta was a bit manic, the effort to stand out is understandable in view of the froufrou surrounding her and she was fun as a character who is basically manic anyways. Pretty voice but unlike the rest of the cast I’m not sure if it’s Met-sized, her lower range didn’t always project.
As for the non-vocal qualities of the performance: this is not a production that encourages individuality, it’s a box into which you can stick a tenor and soprano and have an instant hit for people who like Les Misèrables. It was touching on musical level, and made me entirely forget that this opera usually annoys me, but Zeffirelli isn’t in the business of creating memorable theatrical moments that don’t involve stage machinery or crowds. The bohemians have enough wooden knicknacks in their spacious Parisian garret to keep them warm all winter (some of Marcello’s picture frames were knocked over in Act I, I think unintentionally, and Beczala spent an orchestral interlude putting them back so La Netrebka wouldn’t trip).
By the time the guys are literally chasing each other across the picturesquely crooked rooftops which Zeffirelli has thoughtfully provided, I had totally given up. No, wait, I had already lost it when a tiny kid in uniform waving a French flag marched out in front of a whole regiment of soldiers. As if the whole regiment wasn't already too much. Zeffirelli told me that I was expelled for my theory of Actual Reality. I said I don't care about reality, I care about human drama, which he doesn't. He told me that things had changed in the multitude of minimally rehearsed revivals this production has experienced. I conceded a point but maintain that his work doesn't exactly facilitate Personenregie.
Beczala and Netrebko did their best, and all the big hits--your cold hand, etc.--registered in the right way, but if you’ve seen this production before and have money issues I highly recommend the score desk as a viable option.
Video Bonus: Piotr Beczala, ”Ella mi fu rapita“ (Rigoletto)