Review: Zeffirelli's 'La Bohème' Returns, Brighter and Better

(Critic’s Pick)

Review: Zeffirelli's 'La Bohème' Returns, Brighter and Better

NEW YORK — As general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, Peter Gelb has steadily been replacing productions by Franco Zeffirelli, the unabashed emperor of extravagance, with new ones he deems more contemporary and effective.

His judgment has not been flawless: Gelb admits that retiring the lavish Zeffirelli “Tosca” was a mistake, since the sordidly modern Luc Bondy staging that succeeded it was generally savaged by audiences and critics. (That production was subsequently replaced by a more traditional staging that looked suspiciously similar to Zeffirelli’s old show.)

The Met is unlikely to retire its two remaining Zeffirelli productions, of beloved Puccini works, both audience favorites: “Turandot” (which returned to the house Oct. 3); and “La Bohème” (which opened Friday with a wonderful cast). These were the first Zeffirelli revivals at the Met since the director died in June at 96.

Still, Gelb reserves the right to tweak the Zeffirelli stagings, as he has for this revival of the 1981 “Bohème”: The patterned scrim that Zeffirelli deployed to soften the look of the snow-swept scene in Act III has been removed. In an email explaining the decision, Gelb said he only regrets not making the change years ago.

The scrim certainly softened the atmosphere of the scene, which takes place at dawn near a tollgate in Paris. But it was an “impediment for the singers and the audience, both visually and acoustically,” Gelb said. The scrim made lighting their faces difficult and “muffled their voices slightly,” he added. Without it, he asserted, the singers feel more physically and vocally connected with the orchestra and the audience.

That was my takeaway. This act is the core of the opera, when the lovers Mimì and Rodolfo (the beguiling soprano Ailyn Pérez and the robust tenor Matthew Polenzani), agree to stop quarreling and remain together at least until spring comes, though this is a stopgap: Rodolfo, knowing that Mimì is gravely ill, feels helpless and panicked. The falling snowflakes and dusky background still suggest a hazy dawn in winter. But on Friday you could see the expressions on the faces of the singers, and their voices came through with bloom and directness. Scrims, an easy way to suggest murky atmosphere, are too often resorted to in opera productions. Good riddance to this one.

Pérez, singing with melting sound and affecting vulnerability, made an endearing Mimì, a sensual young woman not afraid to let go when feelings of romantic longing welled up at the first sight of Rodolfo. Polenzani, ardent and impetuous as Rodolfo, summoned Italianate colorings and ringing top notes, while singing with subtlety and rhythmic punch.

The baritone David Bizic was a hearty-voiced, amusingly hotheaded Marcello. And there were three auspicious Met debuts: the Moldovan baritone Andrey Zhilikhovsky brought burly sound and impish charm to Schaunard; the stentorian South Korean bass Jongmin Park was an acerbic and likable Colline; and the vivacious, bright-voiced Ukrainian soprano Olga Kulchynska was a dazzling Musetta. The conductor Marco Armiliato led a vibrant performance that was sensitive to the interpretive nuances of this youthful cast.

Devotees of the Zeffirelli “Bohème” can rest assured that the staging of the Café Momus act, showing a Paris square bustling with some 250 revelers, remains untouched. As usual, the set drew gasps and applause from the audience when the curtain went up.

Event Information:

“La Bohème”

Through Nov. 21; with a different cast, Jan. 9-May 7, 2020. 212-362-6000;

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