A last minute cast change in today's matinee broadcast of Puccini's "La Boheme" took audiences by surprise. Latvian soprano, Kristine Opolais, who has starred as numerous Puccini heroines at the Metropolitan Opera, made her house debut of the role Mimi, graciously stepping in for Anita Hartig. Even having starred in the demanding title role of "Madama Butterfly" less than 24 hours prior, Opolais sounded at the top of her game and, alongside Vittorio Grigolo's Rodolfo, swept the audience off their feet.
Stefano Ranzani plunged right into Puccini's colorful score and led a steady and charismatic rendition. The opening scene, like so many others in this opera, has a conversational feel and relies heavily on the liveliness of the cast. Fortunately, today's performance was teeming with fresh energy. Massimo Cavalletti, in the role of Marcello, and Grigolo (both native Italian speakers) highlighted the libretto's wit, while Oren Gradus, in the role of Colline, and Patrick Carfizzi, in the role of Schaunard, instilled the amicable atmosphere with their good-natured banter.
The back-to-back audience favorites, "Che Gelida Manina" and "Mi Chiamano Mimi," were show-stopping to say the least. Grigolo not only looked the part of the romantic young poet, but, more importantly, sang the part with conviction and fervor. His voice rang ardently, but what made his vocal performance particularly thrilling was the power and yearning in his delicate pianos.
Opolais was equally nuanced. In her Act I aria, her shimmering tone blossomed in the climactic line "il primo bacio dell'aprile è mio" and her touching characterization gained dimension as the opera progressed. Seeing as Opolais had only a few hours to prepare for the role, her stage instinct and the chemistry she shared with her colleagues was truly outstanding. Physically, she inhabited the feeble character and, like Grigolo, completed the portrayal with depictive vocal inflections. Her daring decrescendos communicated Mimi's frailty and tugged at the audience's heartstrings more effectively than even the best physical portrayal could have.
The opera's only other female character, Musetta, is the antithesis of Mimi's modest, delicate character. Musetta, sung by Susanna Phillips, made a fittingly grand entrance amid the bustling streets of Paris in Act II. Franco Zeffirelli's notoriously extravagant set for Act II features over 100 supernumeraries, at least as many choristers, the majority of the cast, and even a horse-drawn carriage (on which Musetta is drawn in). Most of the cast is swallowed by commotion, but Phillips maintained a magnetic presence throughout the chaotic act. In Musetta's famous "Quando M'en Vo," Phillips demonstrated both her vocal dexterity and bewitching lyricism.
"La Boheme" is, without question, one of the world's most beloved operas, but it takes more than a cast of great singers to realize the opera's full dramatic potential and the Met succeeded in bringing together an extraordinary cast of singing actors for this run. The coordination and chemistry between the cast members was superb and the audience's attention never flagged.
After all these years, the charm of Zeffirelli's 1981 production has not worn out its welcome. The painstakingly detailed sets and costumes continue to win applause at the start of each act and provide an engrossing setting for the audience members to lose themselves in.
Today's performance will be rebroadcasted by Fathom Events in select movie theaters on April 9, 2014.