It snowed all through La Bohème

Giacomo Puccini: La bohème
5 April 2014, on Saturday, at the Metropolitan Opera of New York, Live in HD
Conductor: Stefano Ranzani, director: Franco Zeffirelli
Anita Hartig Kristīne Opolais (Mimì), Susanna Phillips (Musetta), Vittorio Grigolo (Rodolfo), Massimo Cavalletti (Marcello), Patrick Carfizzi (Schaunard), Oren Gradus (Colline), Donald Maxwell (Benoit/Alcindoro)

I have a long list of incidents with La bohème. I remember that around 20 years ago, when I was discovering this opera, I hurried to buy a ticket at the National Opera of Bucharest, where I was to have my first disappointment: Hero Lupescu’s production was even more pitiable than in the libretto, Florin Diaconescu was a bad taste dandy Rodolfo, they all sang in Romanian, to cut the long story short, I regretted having bought the ticket. Then, in Budapest, a few years later, the performance (with a production from 1935!) was cancelled, so I had to content myself with Un ballo in maschera (which was nice)In 2012, at Teatro alla Scala, I went to see live Franco Zeffirelli’s production and Angela Gheorghiu, who withdrew from that night’s performance. Now it seems unbelievable, but, at that time, I did not know that Anita Hartig, her replacement, was from Romania. And Hartig sang wonderfully in her Scala debut, that took place a few days earlier than planned. And yesterday, a new cancellation, this time her own. Her replacement was Kristīne Opolais, but this time I knew what to expect.

On Wednesday, Anita Hartig had sung Mimì and the performance was broadcasted on the radio. While listening, I remembered the youth in her voice, the details that make her special: the delicacy, the fineness of a phrase, doubled by the innocence of the debut. This is why one gets attached immediately to the voice of a lyric soprano: if she manages to stand out of the sea of voices which are only beautiful, then there is a revelation of the discovery and you become her fan instantly. I dare even to say that, if there is a tradition of sopranos in Romania, it includes only the lyrical sopranos. Starting from Virginia Zeani, continuing with the soubrette Ileana Cotrubaș (a legendary Mimì), and with Leontina Văduva and Angela Gheorghiu. Hartig is the next generation. But Opolais was coming from Madama Butterfly (she had sung the night before), of another calibre, and moreover, her hobbyhorse lately has been Tosca, so good bye frailty, good bye sublimated high notes, make room for the drama, for strong, cried declamations. And this is how Opolais sang, without any surprise. If Hartig was like a spring, then Opolais was like a return to winter. This is what I felt: that yesterday was the last day of winter, and the weather proved my point too. Of course, I have to admit that the Latvian soprano is very beautiful, but I was taken aback by the anticipation of a spinto voice.

Returning to the broadcast from the Met, we saw again Zeffirelli’s production, in its American version. If the Scala version dates back in 1962, the one in New York premiered in 1981. From the surprise in front of the numberless details, overwhelming especially in act II, I have grown to have some reticences that have become standard towards any mise-en-scène which is so illustrative. Unfortunately, excepting the translation to a kind of Streetcar Named Desire, by Baz Luhrmann, no modern idea has managed to seduce until now. In these circumstances, the Metropolitan is the last place on earth where we can expect a change of perspective. Zeffirelli will remain the king of the Bohème in New York for a long time. But it is more and more difficult to identify myself with his production. In fact, we have the story of some students who fall in love, on the background of the big city that consumes them in all possible manners, but, most of all, a city that, apart from its charm, remains ruthless with the weak. It is easier and easier for me to imagine, instead of the garret, a room in the communist students’hostels, and a café in the centre of Bucharest, near the crowded University Square. It is just an idea.


The great success of the evening was Vittorio Grigolo. For once, the Italian tenor got rid of the questionable accents and of the superficial phrasing, in his effort of presenting a reminder of Pavarotti’s insolence (his mentor). Yesterday he tried  more the sentimentalism, and he managed to build his own Rodolfo, a very convincing one. A young poet, fretting in moves and look, as if unable to concentrate on one thing more than just a few seconds (Non sono in vena…), but constant in his interest for Mimì, starting from the flirt in the first scene and ending, mature and unconsoled, in the last scene. It was truly emotional to see his evolution as a literary character, but also to see this evolution sung at the same dramatic level.

Kristīne Opolais made a real tour de force. She had her debut in Madama Butterfly and in La bohème at the Met, on the same day (La bohème was scheduled as a matinee, so that it could be broadcasted at a reasonable hour in Europe). This is not simple at all, mainly because Cio-Cio-San is a very difficult part. We could feel very little fatigue in her voice, but this fatigue existed, as she was, at least on stage, an exhausted Mimì, who was foreshadowing the end of the opera from its very beginning. She was overwhelmed at the final applauses and she had very good reasons for that.

I would have liked more enthusiasm (yesterday it was replaced by effort) from Massimo Cavalletti, a robust but unappealing Marcello; on the contrary, like never before, I liked Schaunard – Patrick Carfizzi managed to bring to the front a character which, usually, is more decorative. Musetta (Susanna Phillips) was in the extroverted tradition of the Met, only glamour in Quando m’en vo, with all the ostentatious coquetry of the music-hall, but without any nuance of authentic femininity. Ranzani conducted… OK, nec plus ultra.

I think this La bohème will stay in our memory. For Grigolo’s first telecast, as he was the absolute star of the night, for the story of this cancellation (the credits were not changed and kept Anita Hartig’s name), for Kristīne Opolais’ artistic bravery.

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