BWW Review: Stars Align in Met's BOHEME with Opolais, Beczala, Kele and Cavalletti
Take Puccini's LA BOHEME for granted at your peril. Sure, it has more gorgeous music per square inch than just about any other opera in the repertoire, but that doesn't mean that it always falls together, even at the Met. Cast changes--with house debuts and role debuts par for the course in this, the company's most popular piece--and a miscalculated relationship can throw an entire performance off balance. Lucky for those attending the current run of the opera, the stars are in alignment--with Kristine Opolais (Mimi), Piotr Beczala (Rodolfo), Brigitta Kele (Musetta) and Massimo Cavalletti (Marcello) as the stellar central quartet and not a weak link down the line, under the sure and sweeping baton of Marco Armiliato.
BOHEME doesn't get much better than this at the Met these days, with the performers ready to roll as soon as the curtain went up on Act I, with the good-natured hijinks in Rodolfo's and Marcello's garret filled out by the wonderful duo of bass-baritones Patrick Carfizzi as Schaunard and Ryan Speedo Green as Colline. As the others head for Caffe Momus, leaving Rodolfo to finish some work before joining them, Mimi enters and the opera's Act I trifecta of great arias begins between them : "Che gelida manina," "Mi chiamano Mimi" and "O soave fanciulla." It's never "can you top this?" but a heartfelt lightning bolt between the couple that Opolais and Beczala-both in glorious voice--get down perfectly.
It wasn't just their singing that stood out in the performance. Seen on November 23--the third performance in the run--it's hard to imagine the relationships among the bohemians being any smoother, helped along by assistant director J. Knighten Smit. Rodolfo (the poet) and Marcello (the painter), starving roommates in the squalor of the garret setting of Acts I and IV, are pals to the core, ready to burn their second-rate efforts to warm their room. While Beczala and Cavalletti have performed the roles together elsewhere, they certainly couldn't have done it better, with the soaring tenor and the warm and smooth baritone meshing beautifully, particularly in their Act IV duet.
Cavalletti and Opolais sang together at the Met when she made her surprise role debut as Mimi, replacing an ill colleague in an HD broadcast, and their interplay here seemed effortless, with him providing the strong shoulder she needs in Act III.
With Marcello so central to the action (and actions of the other principals), it always surprises me that he has no aria of his own, but Cavalletti is the perfect foil in his arias with both Beczala and Musetta. As Musetta, Kele was the wildcard here, in her Met debut, but she was wonderful in "Quanto m'en vo" (the famed waltz), while he steamed over her flirtatiousness and countered with a frustrated and full-bodied "Gioventu mia."
Act III was the proof of how well they all worked together, as the fortunes of the couples of the two couples switched places so smoothly that their emotional roller coasters seemed totally natural.
Bass Paul Plishka came out of retirement to sing the dual roles of Benoit (the cranky landlord) and Alcindoro (Musetta's sugar daddy). This was not simply sentimental casting, though he made his Met debut almost 50 years (and over 1600 performances) ago and was the opera's Colline on the first "Live from the Met" broadcast. He was first-rate, smartly differentiating the two men. Taking on Plishka's once-upon-a-time role as Colline, Green gave a wrenching version of the love song to his overcoat ( "Vecchia zimarra senti"), being sold for Mimi's medicine. Last, and certainly not least, the Met's wonderful orchestra and chorus (under Donald Palumbo), as the composer demanded, were intrinsic to the success of the evening.
The opera's finale was a model of Puccini's intentions, with no melodrama, death spasms or high notes for our heroine (though Rodolfo gets in a few of his own). In other words, Opolais expired perfectly.
The Met's loath to let go of the current production, created by Franco Zeffirelli in 1981 (with his own scenic design, Peter J. Hall's costumes and Gil Wechsler's lighting), and who could blame them? With its vivid recreation of 19th century Paris, it moves easily from intimate moments to sweeping scale and back again; the audience could, indeed, go home humming the scenery, if Puccini hadn't given us so much memorable music, of course. Yet, maybe it's time for a thoughtful rethinking--but who could be trusted to give it to us?
This cast also performs in LA BOHEME on November 29 and December 3. Further performances with alternate casts appear on December 8, January 6, 11 and 14.