When Giacomo Puccini saw the 1896 premiere of his fourth opera, “La Bohème,” he likely did not take in such a fabulous spectacle as the Franco Zeffirelli production currently at the Metropolitan Opera, seen Thursday, April 10. Franco Zeffirelli’s opulent ultra-realistic sets still provoke audible audience admiration even 31 years after the production’s 1982 unveiling. This is no more true than when the second act curtain rises, revealing a bustling market at stage level and streets of five-story buildings springing from the plaza above, which last night prompted applause and cheers from nearly everyone.
As the poet Rodolfo, who falls madly in love at first sight with Mimì, his new neighbor, Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo brandished a sweet clarion voice, which pinged with ardor in his first-act “Che gelida manina” and ensuing duet with Mimì, “O soave fanciulla.” At times in Act I Rodolfo sang ahead of the orchestra, or was the orchestra lagging behind? His delicately repeated phrase “ma ho paura” (“but I am afraid”) in Act III and his final-act cries of “Mimì” sent shivers.
A distinguished Mimì, Milanese soprano Barbara Frittoli brought utter credibility and a ravishing tone to the title role. Her Act III “Donde lieta uscì,” warmly applauded, a perfect balance of dignity and vulnerability, showcased exquisite tone throughout her entire range. Her death in Act IV came all too soon in view of her heartbreaking tender reminiscences with Rodolfo. Why did Puccini have to be so dramatically economical all the time?
“The New York Times” of March 24 said of American soprano Jennifer Rowley that she “made a splash in her house debut” as the voluble yet compassionate Musetta. Absent in Act I, she makes up for lost time during Act II’s Café Momus scene. Her aria “Quando me’n vo” capped the sequence of scenes she stole, from her flamboyant entrance in a horse-drawn carriage, through countless flirtations with cast members and supernumeraries alike. Yet she conveyed Musetta’s humanness in Act III and her humanity in Act IV with sincerity equally convincing as her initial shallowness.
Italian baritone Massimo Cavalletti perfectly acted the jealous Marcello, ever insecure in Musetta’s affections. Though the orchestra covered his superb voice in Act III, he had no troubles being heard elsewhere.
Brooklyn-born baritone Oren Gradus in the role of Colline sang a heartfelt “Vecchia zimarra, senti” when in Act IV deciding to sell his overcoat to palliate the dying Mimì. Newburgh, N.Y., native bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi cavorted as Schaunard, providing comic relief, and his burnished instrument heard in ensemble left one wanting an aria proper or at least a duet for his character. Doing double duty as the bohemians’ landlord Benoit and Musetta’s would-be protector Alcindoro, Scottish baritone Donald Maxwell made his buffo characters believable.
Conductor Stefano Ranzani of Milan led a reading of the score that was sympathetic to the six principal characters. After initial unevenness, orchestra pit and stage played in beautiful sync. Kudos to the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra strings for warm, gorgeous tone, never becoming schmaltzy.
Despite Act II’s over-the-top stage excesses, the Zeffirelli production is dramatically effective. In the Act I and Act IV garret, all action—and plenty of it—takes place in a confined playing field roughly a tenth the size of the mammoth stage, the set thrust forward toward the orchestra pit. Situated thus, the audience is brought in to witness the intimate goings-on in this unspectacular home.
The darkness of Act III underscores the frigid winter temperatures as an apt metaphor to love’s cooling off among the principal couples. Right on cue, snowflakes begin to float downward in Rodolfo and Mimì’s duet, wherein they decide to part come springtime. With massive trees looming overhead in the rear stage area, the frailty of these little people enmeshed in everyday problems comes to full clarity like a slide under a microscope. Say what you will, the production is gripping and must be one of the best ever stagings anywhere. Only two performances remain.