WASHINGTON,April 6, 2014 – There’s nothing anywhere like live musical theater. It’s there, it’s immediate, and there’s no second take if something goes wrong. That was certainly the case Saturday afternoon as the New York Metropolitan Opera’s eagerly anticipated, worldwide HD simulcast of Puccini’s beloved “La Bohéme” was about to begin.
Opera fans have learned to dread it when an opera company’s head honcho—in this case, the Met’s Peter Gelb—appears in front of the curtain just as the production is about to begin. This is often the signal that one of the current opera’s stars—usually the one you especially paid to see—will not be appearing today.
And so it was for this live Saturday matinee performance of “Bohème,” which was a near sellout in theaters around the world. Ticket sales were driven not only by the stellar cast the Met had assembled. Avid fans of truly “grand” grand opera were also eager to experience this production’s over-the-top authentic, lavish, and detailed sets depicting 19th century Left Bank Parisian as envisioned and designed by famous movie director Franco Zeffirelli back in 1981.
But now Mr. Gelb stood in front of the curtain to announce that this production’s Mimi—Romanian soprano Anita Hartig in her first appearances at the Met—had been laid low by the flu. Making matters worse, Mr. Gelb and the Met had only learned of Ms. Hartig’s tough decision early in the A.M. yesterday, which, behind the scenes, gave the company virtually no time to come up with a solution prior to the broadcast, something that would have been disastrously difficult either to scuttle or reschedule.
But here, the Met drew on an unexpected resource, Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais who had just made her Met role debut as Cio-Cio-San the previous evening in the Met’s current production of Puccini’s other greatest hit, “Madama Butterfly.” With only hours until “Bohème’s” curtain, Mr. Gelb persuaded a groggy and initially reluctant Ms. Opolais—who, as she later revealed in an intermission interview, had only had about three hours’ sleep—to step in as Mimi so the show, and the theatrical simulcast—could go on.
The choice of Ms. Opolais, while expedient, was also logical, as she’s sung Mimi before and knows the role well. But opera singers—who, unlike today’s over-amped pop singers, perform their vocal magic over a full orchestra and without the benefit of microphones—typically get one to three days’ rest between performances to give their voices a chance to recover.
Not so for Ms. Opolais, whose performance as Mimi went into the Met’s record book. It was the first time, ever, that a star vocalist had made not one but two Met role debuts over the course of just 18 hours.
Stepping into a different opera at incredibly short notice like this after just having sung another powerhouse role like Cio-cio-san the previous evening is tough enough. But coming into a different production, joining an unfamiliar cast, trying to get on top of new set, costuming and stage blocking situations and getting it all down in something less than six hours is Mission Impossible stuff. And Mr. Phelps was nowhere in sight.
But Mr. Gelb announced that Ms. Opolais was good to go, so it was on with the show.
For those few not at least vaguely familiar with “Bohème,” perhaps even in 2014 still the world’s most cherished opera, the plot is deceptively simple. We are transported back in time to view a slice of life in late 19th century Paris, with an emphasis on the often amusing travails of four impoverished young creative types trying to make their way, and their reputations, in the Big City. It’s almost like a period-version of “Friends,” in a way, except that it takes place in France and sung in Italian.
Our four chums in this case are Marcello (Massimo Cavaletti), Rodolfo (Vittorio Grigolo), Colline (Oren Gradus), and Schaunard. We watch in amusement as they try to game the system in order to survive until they become famous as they know they will.
But Bohemian life in Paris would be a shallow subject indeed were it not for the tumultuous love lives of our quartet of Friends, most especially the poet Rodolfo. On a frigid Christmas Eve night, he meets by chance the fragile young seamstress Mimi (Kristine Opolais in this performance), a fellow resident in his shabby tenement building. It’s love at first sight for both, conveyed at once by Puccini with perhaps some of the most ravishing Romantic music ever written.
The remainder of the opera is a series of ups and downs in Rodolfo’s and Mimi’s tumultuous relationship, a romantic struggle paralleled by the constant squabbling between his friend, the painter Marcello, and his impossibly flirty sometime girlfriend Musetta (Susanna Phillips). But things get serious near the end as Mimi, a long-suffering victim of TB, returns to Rodolfo’s shabby apartment where, tragically, she breathes her last.
We’re not guilty of failing to post a spoiler alert here. Everyone with even a passing acquaintance with musical theater knows this is a story that doesn’t end well, resulting in a genuine, four-hankie finale even for opera fans who’ve seen “Bohème” two dozen times or more.
For unlike any number of operas whose music rescues paper-thin and/or implausible plots and libretti, “Bohème” at its dramatic core captures the glorious and manic happiness of youth and the intense passion of young love, all of which, of course, will live forever. But sooner or later, a day comes when wild dreams like these are shattered forever and when young people suddenly confront the less happy realities of adulthood. In “Bohème,” our four friends’ moment of wild, “I’m gonna live forever” exuberance ends abruptly with Mimi’s tragic death.
Obviously, Mimi’s passing is particularly devastating on Rodolfo, who, with the utter foolishness of youth, tries to alienate and drive Mimi away from him once he discovers she is not likely to live very long. His reason? He’s utterly penniless and knows he cannot help her, so better to drive her away rather than face his own helplessness and failure to somehow protect her.
It’s perhaps a typical, youthful cop-out on Rodolfo’s support. If you don’t see the problem, well then, there isn’t one. But the full knowledge of what he’s done crashes in on him in the finale, and we know, as the curtain falls, that neither Rodolfo’s life, nor the lives of his friends, will ever be same. A key member of their youthful circle is suddenly gone. None of them will live forever either, including a now surprisingly subdued and compassionate Musetta.
Why go on here about plot, character and development in a discussion of an already well-known opera? Easy answer. The most successful “Bohèmes” are not only supported by a talented cast of vocalists. They are put over the top by singers who truly know how to act and to convey the inner essence of each character.
Since Saturday’s HD performance aired several performances after this production’s actual opening night, we’d expect this already marvelous cast of young and youngish singers to have the routine down by now. But what happens when your female lead is suddenly someone you’ve never worked with before?
Which gets us to the astounding performance of “Bohème” that Saturday’s theater audiences finally viewed. With effectively zero preparation, Ms. Opolais stepped right in and almost instantly meshed with the existing cast. More amazing: she and her Rodolfo, the wonderful tenor Vittorio Grigolo, somehow found instant chemistry on stage.
Perhaps this effect was serendipity. In Act I, both Rodolfo and Mimi are thunderstruck when, having only encountered each other for the first time, they find themselves instantly in love. This performance, likewise, marked the very first time that Mr. Grigolo and Ms. Opolais had ever performed together on stage let alone opposite one another as an opera’s two principal stars. Perhaps, magically, their own first artistic encounter mirrored that first encounter of Rodolfo and Mimi, lending to their performance an unexpected authenticity.
The pair said as much during a breathless, enthusiastic backstage interview during the second intermission feature, hosted by Met star Joyce DiDonato. Rather astonishingly, given the last-minute heroics, the singers were clearly excited about how well they were working with one another and were looking forward to the next act. It helped everyone to understand at least some of the reason behind their surprisingly warm yet barely rehearsed portrayals.
Whatever it was, the chemistry they developed in record time worked spectacularly well. Ms. Opolais’ first vocal moments in Act I seemed a bit tentative, although she also might have meant to convey the eventually fatal fragility of her character. But once she and Mr. Grigolo engaged in the series of high-Romantic aria/duets that conclude this act, passion was clearly in the air, lending a strong air of authenticity to the rest of this performance.
The range of nuance and emotion Ms. Opolais was able to convey was quite impressive, particularly since she’d just endured Cio-cio-san’s heartbreaking decline and fall only a few hours earlier. Possibly, she was ever so slightly off peak here. But if she was somehow operating on reserve power—or pure adrenelin—in this performance, she must be a truly formidable presence with a couple of nights off.
Her lovely, youthful, effortlessly nuanced voice was a perfect match to her portrayal of the physically weak yet idealistic and loving Mimi.
In Vittorio Grigolo, she may have discovered by accident her perfect Rodolfo. Mr. Grigolo boasts a powerful yet bel canto capable instrument. And, as an actor, he clearly possesses a great deal of empathy with his fellow actor-singers and the characters they represent.
Witnessing his literal mind-meld with Ms. Opolais in the first act was a truly memorable experience. Better yet was his implicit invitation to the audience to travel along with his character as Rodolfo moves from the futile and inappropriate idealism and foolishness of youth to sobering realities of life and love as they really are.
Remaining cast members were strong, adding to the emotional impact of this production. As Rodolfo’s pals, Massimo Cavalletti, Oren Gradus and Patrick Carfizzi were all in fine voice. Better yet, they felt and acted like they were really Rodolfo’s pals, a bunch of youthful goof-offs who were nonetheless quite serious, to the point of abject poverty, about pursuing their respective arts and who at least gave stable relationships with the opposite sex a chance.
Likewise, Susanna Phillips’ Musetta was a delight. Her star turn in the Act II “Musetta’s Waltz” was spot on as was her “girls just wanna have fun” characterization of Musetta. But her seriousness as a actor-singer shone through as we see and hear Musetta’s surprising compassionate side as she desperately attempts to help the dying Mimi. Again, the end of youth, and a portrayal exceptionally well done.
As we’ve come to expect, the Met’s orchestra was superb throughout this performance, this time under the able baton of Stefano Ranzani.
Both the huge adult and more modest children’s choruses sounded wonderful, particularly in the chaotic Act II in which a number of talented non-vocal actors, circus artists, and extras portrayed a buzzing and happy Christmas Eve crowd.
And of course, a hat tip to Franco Zeffirelli for his spectacular sets, particularly the Act II extravaganza focused on the Left Bank Café Momus and its busy, teeming, commercial neighborhood. Along with the endless, tiered ranks of angels in the San Francisco Opera’s astounding 1989 production of Boito’s “Mefistofele,” the Zeffirelli “Bohème,” though criticized by some, is one of the great operatic scenic spectaculars of our time.
The best part about this Met in HD performance of “La Bohème,” however, might be this: If you missed it, you still have a chance to see it in the theatrical rebroadcast of this performance in a theater near you on Wednesday, April 9, at 6:30 p.m. your local time.
As with the original simulcast, tickets are said to be going much faster than usual, so get yours today if you can. For details on the production and tickets, link to the Met’s HD info pages here.
If you’ve never attended before and aren’t quite sure where your local simulcast is taking place, a list of participating U.S. and International theaters is available via the Met’s HD site, link above.
Rating for “La Bohème”: **** (4 out of 4 stars)
Next up for The Met in HD: Rossini’s “La Cenerentola” (“Cinderella”), Saturday, May 10 at 12:55 p.m.