The Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday live broadcast Feb. 24 was La Bohème by Puccini. They are still doing the Zeffirelli production designed in 1980. (There is a nice little film of its original production which used to be included on the VCR tape but was excised when it went to DVD. Fortunately, it has popped up again here, and I think it is worth a watch.)
The theme of the opera is that death — and only death — is able to transform six selfish young people so that they take the first (at least baby) steps of love. That tacit thread is the reason this comedic tragedy, despite the melodrama of the ending, is able to touch many of us very deeply. Albeit, the Mimi/Rodolfo arias in Act I also still do a lot for me, before the main theme has had a chance to develop.
In a number of ways, the current production was better than the original. Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo is about equal to Carreras’; lesser here, greater there. Sonya Yoncheva’s Mimi is vastly better than Teresa Stratas’. What I like about Yoncheva over Stratas is especially the control over the vibrato, which Sonya uses with good control as a garnish where Teresa’s was more like a chaotic jiggling bowl full of jelly. Sonya delivers great power in the upper register, which is not only pleasant in its own right, but it allows her to project a sense of confidence to the hearer; we don’t need to worry about her flubbing up and can just immerse in the music.
Likewise, Susanna Phillips’ Musetta is vastly superior to the screechy Renata Scotto, though in fairness, Scotto was well past her peak and was perhaps being rewarded for earlier triumphs by giving her the role in the 80’s production. But that doesn’t matter. It is about us, the audience, not about the singers. Their job is to make us happy. It’s easy to forget this.
The original James Morris as Colline is to date unexcelled by anyone. Matthew Rose needs to work on audio power and resonance.
As Marcello, the new Lucas Meachem is about equal to the 80s Richard Stilwell as to presentation, but needs to work on gaining a bit more vocal power.
The production tweaks get low marks, particularly for straining too hard to put Wakandans everywhere possible. One of the soldiers leering at Musetta is now a Wakandan. The boy that wants to buy the trumpet in Act 2 is transformed into a Wakandan girl — a double whammy token I guess. Wakandans dominate the city-scape. This is all implausible. I was in the Left Bank 150 years after this story takes place and don’t recall seeing any. So it is simply dishonest. I will believe the establishment’s racial innovations are sincere when they cast a honky as Ralph Abernathy in a movie about Martin Luther King, Jr.