The Met is at its best when showcasing one of its traditional, large-scale, lavish productions, as the professional sheen of this revival of La bohème proved. Franco Zeffirelli's production dates from 1981 but the three massive, realistic sets are still as eye-catching as ever and made for a sure-fire crowd-pleaser at this Saturday night performance.
Of course, it's not a remotely challenging show, nor does it shed light on the inner workings of the text in a particularly interesting way, but that does not mean it's unfaithful to it; nor does the great Italian director's respect for the piece prevent the production from being absorbing. In Act I, he gives us as literal a representation of the artists' Parisian garret as you could hope to see; Act II is a wonderfully lavish illustration of both the Café Momus and the Latin Quarter in which it is located, complete with donkey cart, horse and trap, and people on several layers, concluding with a splendid realisation of the march through the street; and the snowy scene in the third act brings home to us the fact that this is the winter of the lovers' relationships. For me, there's a practical problem with the garret set, which of course returns in Act IV: placing the singers towards the back of the stage means that they have to work hard to be heard, and the outer acts weren't entirely emotionally-involving for me at this performance. But it would be churlish to deny that this is Zeffirelli at his best.
The cast brought together for this revival leant more towards refinement and detail than fireworks. Angela Gheorghiu, singing the role of Mimi at the Met for the first time in over a decade, never quite let rip as was once common for her – I remember performances of La rondine and Simon Boccanegra at Covent Garden when she easily outshone everyone else on the stage – but she sang both expressively and beautifully. She also has the measure of Mimi's personality, and still has a compelling presence on the stage.
As Rodolfo, Ramon Vargas started to hit his stride towards the end of the first act and gave a sweet rendition of 'Che gelida manina', going on to perform gracefully for the rest of the performance. Like Gheorghiu, he didn't project as strongly as Puccini's lavish orchestration needs at times, and some of the top notes weren't as open or thrilling as the great interpreters of this role can achieve, but Vargas' highly attractive tone and musical intelligence made him a cornerstone of the performance.
Ludovic Tezier's Marcello warmed up as the evening went on, coming into his own in the duet with Mimi in Act III, and Oren Gradus shone in Colline's aria in the opera's final scene after a slightly understated first act. Paul Plishka's double act as Benoit and Alcindoro was a vividly-characterised strongpoint of the performance, while Ainhoa Arteta's clearly-projected, striking Musetta was (deservedly) a favourite with the audience.
For me, the single most impressive aspect of the performance was the conducting of Nicola Luisotti. Here is a man who knows what he is doing in this repertoire: the way he can control the orchestra to move with the singers' expressive tempo fluctuations is breathtaking, a quality which helps to show Puccini at his best. Luisotti understands both the structure of the music – whether in the fluent musical paragraph which underscores the opening scene or the intimately-scored 'Donde lieta uscì' for Mimi in the third act – and its emotional intentions. The Met orchestra played with warmth and refinement throughout, and the chorus was noticeably stronger than in the performance of Ernani I attended two nights previously.
Ultimately, the fact that the production gives us picture-postcard tableaux rather than edge-of-the-seat drama, plus the slight underprojection of the two lead singers (especially at first), made this an enjoyable rather than a moving Bohème. But the lavishness of the sets, plus a good sense of ensemble, still left everyone more than satisfied.
Picture credits: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera