It was the evening after Christmas in 1900 when the Metropolitan Opera Company, on tour in Los Angeles, premiered La Bohème. It was years before Giacomo Puccini’s opera became widely acknowledged as the masterpiece it is, and, just four years old at the time, it was by no means an immediate success, still requiring the star power of soprano Nellie Melba. Ms. Melba, encouraged by the applause, as well as the box office, would return after the final curtain call to sing the grueling “Mad Scene” from Lucia di Lammermoore. These days, La Bohème remains one of the only operas that doesn’t require such gimmicks to keep the house full, as proved by its triumphant return to the Met this fall.
With Puccini’s talent for interweaving dream-like lyricism and dramatic storytelling in a way that still manages to tug on our heartstrings over a century later, it’s no wonder that La Bohème, along with Madama Butterfly, Turandot and Tosca, remains one of the most popular operas. Since its California debut, La Bohème has been omitted from only six of the Met’s 111 seasons, a testament to its long-standing demand. Franco Zeffirelli’s production, which has been impressing audiences with its 19th century Parisian street scenes and snowy landscapes since 1981 was, per usual, well-received during the six-show run conducted by Louis Langrèe. The talented cast most notably featured Russian soprano Hibla Gerzmava in her Metropolitan Opera debut as the ailing Mimi, and Dimitri Pittas as an incredibly suave Rodolfo.
Based on the play Scènes de la vie de bohème by the French author Henri Murger, the tale follows two pairs of star-crossed lovers and their impoverished friends who mirthfully attempt to keep food on the table of their shabby atelier in the Latin Quarter of Paris. What was especially striking about this production was the palpable chemistry between cast members, who were not only equipped with excellent voices, but equally gifted in dramatic prowess. Ms. Gerzmava, for example, unleashed her powerful instrument capable of producing everything from saccharine pianos to charming giggles at the end of “Mi chiamano Mimi.”
While effectively portraying heavy emotions amidst ill-fated circumstances, the characters were practically carried off of the stage and into the hearts of the receptive audience, who could be heard uttering many a’ “Brava” throughout the evening’s performance. While opera is certainly not the most realistic of performance genres, on Friday night there was a sincerity present that allowed audience members to truly connect with the characters on stage. As Musetta’s “Quando m’en vo” rang throughout the theater, a woman sitting in front of us nudged her husband excitedly and whispered, “This is one of my favorite songs.”
In this particular production, Rodolfo and Mimi were portrayed as young lovers, quick to give into delirious desires and inflated infatuations, particularly in Act I when Mr. Pittas’ Rodolfo urges Mimi to stay home with him, caressing her shoulders as if they had known each other for more than ten minutes. “Sarebbe così dolce restar qui,” (“Wouldn’t it be so nice to stay here?”) he sings sweetly in his expressive legato, the promise of indecency as brazen as Ms. Gerzmava’s low cut dress. Shorty afterwards, during the spectacular Parisian street scene in Act II, Musetta (a captivating Susanna Phillips) and Marcello (the formidable Alexey Markov) bicker like true lovers at odds in front of a glowing Cafè Momus. But it was during the third act that we were overwhelmed with emotion when Gerzmava and Pittas’ voices blended so perfectly in “Addio dolce svegliare,” the believability of the characters combined with a score deftly negotiated by Mr.Langrèe’s orchestra bringing The Observer to near tears.
As an opera that has kept the house seats warm, always an evening of enjoyment to both the opera cognoscenti and ignoranti, we await next year when we’re once again charmed by la vie bohème.