The Met’s “Boheme” serves up a nearly perfect take on a perfect opera 

November 19, 2011
By Caitlin McKechney

Dimitri Pittas as Rodolfo and Hei-Kyung Hong as Mimì in the Metropolitan Opera production of Puccini's "La Bohème." Photo: Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera

La boheme is an opera that needs no recommendation.  It is like beef bourguignon — universally liked for what it is, and an opportunity for a chef to express something individual on a template that is already beloved.

Since its premiere in 1896 under Arturo Toscanini, Puccini’s La boheme has touched audiences with its empathetic characters and heart-wrenching plot. The opera has become a standard for the obvious musical reasons as well as its universal timelessness.  We recognize people we all know – the flirt, the “cool”  rebel, the dorky but reliable side-kick, the romantic, the intellectual – archetypes that represent the world and even different parts of ourselves.  Because of this, we know their struggles and identify with them, feel their pain even more deeply.  And when set to Puccini’s soaring score, we remain putty in his hands, as audiences have been now for over a century.

The Metropolitan Opera mounting of the classic — and for some, reviled — Zeffirelli production, which opened Friday night, remains traditional for all its outsized trappings. Though when truly well sung and honestly portrayed, this piece needs neither bells and whistles nor unnecessary modernization.

Dimitri Pittas delivered an emotionally charged performance as Rodolfo that made you believe his utterances of love and the youthful confusions of this young poet.  His voice is lighter than some who sing this role, and the higher passages in Che gelida manina sounded a bit strained, but the beautiful moments far outweighed those lacking.

The star of the show, however, was Hei-Kyung Hong who brought delicacy and understated honesty to the role of Mimi.  She never oversang, which is perhaps how, in her 50s, she is still able to sing roles like Mimi as gorgeously as she does. Even her pianissimos soared over the orchestra, and the climactic moments in both of her arias rolled out like a musical wave of passion.  She was the perfect embodiment of a character who is simple and pure yet possesses a love as deep as the ocean she will never get a chance to see.

From the virile, honeyed voice of Alexey Markov as Marcello, we are thrown into the believable world of these 19th century starving artists. Matthew Rose as Colline possesses a voice that is resonant in his deep bass while still having focus, and sang an emotionally poignant Vecchia zimarra. Patrick Carfizzi as Schaunard made his mark with a humorous and lively depiction.

Filling out the cast was Susanna Phillips who sang fabulously and was just the right amount of obnoxious for the coquettish Musetta, believably shifting to a caring friend at Mimi’s deathbed. Paul Plishka’s veteran comic timing and fearless vocalism brought life to the duo roles of Benoit and Alcindoro.

David Knuess’s direction was nuanced and sensitive, highlighting musical moments for maximum dramatic effect. The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, led by Louis Langrée, played eloquently, particularly the horns, which brought vibrancy to Parisian Christmas Eve in Act II as well as a weighted sadness to Mimi’s final moments.  The Met Chorus, prepared by chorusmaster Donald Palumbo, was excellent in both the joyful Christmas scene as well as the atmospheric opening of Act III, including the extremely competent children’s chorus led by Anthony Piccolo.

La boheme runs through December 8.

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