Composer: Giacomo Puccini
Conductor: Marco Armiliato
Director: Franco Zeffirelli
Mimi: Angela Gheorghiu
Rodolfo: Piotr Beczala
Musetta: Ruth Ann Swenson
Marcello: George Petean
Colline: Oren Gradus
Schaunard: Massimo Cavalletti
The life of a live performance aficionada can sometimes have as many unexpected twists and turns as the most convoluted opera. Even as I was feeling pangs of guilt for temporarily abandoning my not-well-traveled, hardly-English-speaking parents and sister to their own device for a couple of hours on their first day in New York City, I was giddily looking forward to experiencing Zeffirelli's famed production of La Bohème at the Met with the alluring couple of Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczala.
But fate had decided otherwise and as soon as I opened my program I noticed the dreaded insert, this time stating that Anna Netrebko was ill, which made my heart sink, and that Angela Gheorghiu would fill in for her, which made my heart leap right back into place. I had been very disappointed by the latter's baling out of Carmen a couple of months ago, so it looked like payback time had already come.
In the wide-ranging world of the lyrical arts, La Bohème definitely qualifies as "comfort opera". The story is all about love and bohemian life, and the music is of course as pretty as can be. Add to that charismatic singers and a richly evocative decor, et voilà! After the miserable opening night that nearly broke Puccini's heart, this blatantly sentimental, unabashedly lyrical opera has consistenly been an audience's favorites, and the long sold-out crowd on Saturday afternoon was yet another case in point.
Even if she lacks Anna Netrebko's innocence and vulnerability, Angela Ghiorghiu more than makes up for it with her famously versatile voice and unmistakable presence. Let's face it, the woman may have an infuriating prima donna attitude offstage and borderline grating mannerisms onstage, but as soon as she opens her mouth, all is forgiven and forgotten. Mimi has long been one of her signature roles, so she had the choice to dwell deep into the part or just walk through it. Luckily for us, she chose the first option and offered us a lovely, if a bit on the mature side, heroine, effortlessly conveying the poor girl's sweet nature and tragic fate with her endlessly pliable, artlessly lyrical voice.
As Rodolfo, Piotr Beczala delivered a pitch-perfect performance combining ardent singing and committed acting. His instantaneous love for his neighbor genuinely seemed to take him by surprise and his burning desire to do the right thing was as touching as his helplessness when confronted with her fatal illness. Their first encounter remains one of the most treasured duets in opera, and on Saturday the chemistry beautifully operated.
The rest of the gang served the production admirably. Rodofo's three roommates skillfully formed a tight group of best buddies and easily brought the right amount of good-natured humor and dramatic thrust to the plot. As Musetta, Ruth Ann Swenson may not have had the flawless beauty she boasted about in her stirring introductory aria, and which explains the irresistible power she has over her impressive list of conquests, but her singing was gloriously full and bright.
The story unfolded in Zeffirelli's predictably opulent set, where even the destitute artists' attic studio was striking by its richness of details and overall attractiveness. The second act was a dazzling two-leveled festival of sights and sounds, brilliantly evoking the Latin Quarter on a rambunctious Christmas Eve. The snow was poetically falling on the dreamy wintry landscape during Act 3, poignantly underlining the growing direness of the lead couple's circumstances before the action was back in the infamously cold garret for the final act. All those scenes, as different as they were, clearly displayed the Italian director's lavish touch without stealing the attention from the action.
The score is Puccini at his very best, overflowing with enchanting melodies that not only dramatically emphasize the decisive moments, but also connect everything together with transcendental lyricism. Marco Armiliato is a frequent conductor at the Met and his mastery at bringing Italian opera to life had long been proven. On Saturday afternoon, he let it all impeccably soar, even if the singers' voices were occasionally drowned in the brazenly rolling musical waves. The result may not always have been perfectly balanced, but it was for sure passionately expressive, and would have made Puccini very proud of his opera about the lives of little people with big emotions.