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Review: A Thrilling ‘La Bohème’ at the Met, Radiating Warmth

Category: Entertainment,Music

I’ve never been much of a fan of Franco Zeffirelli’s production of Puccini’s “La Bohème,” with its realistic sets and dowdy charm. But I developed an unexpected fondness for it on Tuesday, at the premiere of a revival of this Metropolitan Opera stalwart.

That’s partly because the tackiness of the Met’s new “Samson et Dalila,” with which the company opened its season on Monday, was still singed onto my retinas. The stage sometimes resembled the set of a TED talk, and generated about as much spontaneity from the performers.

Suddenly I was thankful for Mr. Zeffirelli’s care in creating theatrical spaces in which characters could have plausibly human interactions. His painstaking replica of Paris’s Latin Quarter played home to a stellar young cast that filled it with thrilling singing as well as a much scarcer commodity at the 4,000-seat Met: emotional warmth.

It was an evening of debuts. The Australian soprano Nicole Car brought fine-grained tone and nuanced acting to the role of Mimì. There was a light, linear quality to her singing in the first act that opened up to a richer palette as renunciation and terminal illness darkened her character’s life. Her final scene, with Mimì on her deathbed surrounded by friends, was all the more poignant because she showed no trace of melancholy.

Also making his Met debut was Etienne Dupuis, Ms. Car’s husband, who revealed a suave, empathetic baritone as Marcello, the leading man’s best friend. Refined and charismatic, his singing anchored many ensemble numbers.

Peeking out of the orchestra pit was a new face, too. Making his house debut, James Gaffigan led an energetic performance, scrupulously attentive to the singers and not averse to taking risks with the tempo or teasing a little extra juice out of a phrase. His communication with the orchestra wasn’t always symbiotic, but the trust he commanded on stage was palpable.

And in Vittorio Grigolo’s dazzling Rodolfo, Mr. Gaffigan had a lead tenor worth following. Mr. Grigolo has one of the healthiest and most versatile voices in opera, boasting a rare combination of power and beauty. He also seems to have an inner dashboard with multiple dials regulating volume, heat, contour and depth, which he plays with absolute confidence.

When he first meets Mimì, Rodolfo sings, “E come vivo? Vivo!” (“How do I live? I live!”) But panache gave way to a hint of dissatisfaction and yearning as Mr. Grigolo allowed that ringing repetition of “vivo” to taper off and melt into doubt. His duet with Mimì in Act III, full of fluctuating emotions and misunderstandings, was a model of textured acting supported by flexible singing. It may be an odd compliment to offer artists in the heightened world of opera, but rarely have I seen Puccini characters seem so normal.

The luxury cast also included Angel Blue as Musetta and the bass Matthew Rose as Colline. Ms. Blue’s forthright, full-bodied soprano is supplemented by a presence that radiates wit. To fans who have heard her Mimì, her turn as the spunky Musetta may seem a demotion, but with its irrepressible energy — and generous dollops of tenderness — her voice fit the character well. Mr. Rose turned in a splendid comic performance that deepened, near the end, into real dignity.

Puffs of dust rose occasionally from Mr. Zeffirelli’s decades-old furnishings during rough-and-tumble comic scenes. But the performers made this production feel fresh and sweet. It was not so much a revival as a transfiguration.

La Bohème
Through Dec. 13, with cast changes, at the Metropolitan Opera; 212-362-6000, metopera.org.


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