Maija Kovalevska as Mimi. Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera
by James Karas
Those four starving artists who live in that freezing attic in the Latin Quarter are back. Not that they ever left. To be precise, they have shown up 1229 times at New York’s Metropolitan Opera as of February 3, 2011 and have gone AWOL for only six seasons since their first appearance at the Met in 1900.
I speak of Puccini’s La Boheme which is now showing at the opulent Lincoln Centre. This is a remounting of the Franco Zeffirelli production which has been around as long as Hosni Mubarak has been president of Egypt. Hosni’s 30-year stint is getting mixed reviews in Cairo’s Liberty Square these days. Zeffirelli’s over-the-top production is still eliciting standing ovations with no loud demands for resignation and without posing any danger to people.
Three years ago the production was beamed live to movie theatres around the world with the major star power of Angela Gheorgiu and Rolando Villazon in the lead roles. The current productions stars may not have such exalted star patina but they do provide first-rate vocal power in a production that has stood the test of time.
Latvian soprano Maija Kovalevska sang the role of the pretty, simple and wonderful Mimi with the cold hands, with beauty and poise. She has a beautiful voice and sang with the right touch of tremolo to indicate fragility, vulnerability, and just the sweet girl you want to meet.
Polish tenor Piotr Beczala made an agile Rodolfo with a light tenor voice that soared on the high notes and was a delight to hear. Swedish baritone Peter Mattei provided the perfect contrast with his sonorous delivery of Marcello. American soprano Susanna Phillips was suitably flighty and vivacious as Musetta. Zeffirelli dresses her in wild red to make sure we get the message.
Zeffirelli believes that grand opera must live up to its name and nothing is done on a less than, well, grand scale. The attic where the artists live is clearly on the top floor of some tenement building. When we move to the street scene and the Café Momus we are given a glimpse of Paris that only Hollywood can compete with. There is a huge crowd, buildings rise on every side and the cafes are full of beautifully dressed people.
When a cart goes by and the toy vendor Parpignol shows up, there is a donkey to pull the first and a horse for the second.
The third act scene by the toll gate at the edge of Paris has snow banks to surpass the piles in most North American cities that were gathered after the last storm.
And the whole thing starts with a blown candle, a dropped key and groping around the floor. Rodolfo feels her hand and sings “Che gelida manina.” Mimi tells him her name and a few other things in “Mi chiamano Mimi” and a duet later they are madly in love. The love affair lasts for only a visit to the Café Momus, in stage time in any event.
In the next scene, because of jealousy or perhaps something deeper, she is singing “Addio senza rancor” (let’s part friends!) He says he is splitting with her because she is sick and his earnings as a poet will not provide for much medical attention. Can we have that again? He is leaving her so she can find someone better-heeled to pay her medical bills.
A few ends are tied up in the final act back in the attic. Musetta proves she has a heart of gold and she and Marcello reconcile (they are the other side of the coin of love and left on bad terms when Rodolfo and Mimi were parting as friends) and Mimi dies just in time for the 11:00 o’clock news.
Puccini’s music manages to make this sentimental tale into a moving night at the opera. Without the music it would be laughed off the stage. Add the melodies and music and you have an opera that no opera house can do without and the Met, as I said, has not left it alone for more than six seasons in the last 110 years.