The Met’s playbook for Puccini’s La Bohème was really thrown out of whack on April 5th when General Manager Peter Gelb woke up that morning and learned he didn’t have a Mimì for the 1:00 p.m. telecast. Anita Hartig, in an early-morning phone call to Mr. Gelb, informed him she had not sufficiently recovered from her bout with the flu and wouldn’t be able to sing. From what we have been told from news sources and during the telecast itself, Gelb then decided to call Kristine Opolais and asked her to fill in for Ms. Hartig. The problem facing Opolais was that the night before she had sung the long and demanding role of Cio-cio-san in Puccini’s Madame Butterfly and when the call came at 7:30 in the morning, the soprano was in a sound sleep. At first, it was reported, she refused, but within a half hour she called back, and luckily for Gelb, agreed to sing. To add to the uncertainty, no one knows for sure whether a cover for Mimi was assigned or not.
But the end result in all this turmoil was a telecast that turned out to be one of the most touching and engaging performances of La Bohème the Met has given us in some time.
The event also marked the much-anticipated telecast debut of the exuberant Italian tenor Vittorio Grigòlo, who has changed the accent in his last name to highlight his climb to stardom. On a serious note, however, what Opolais and Grigòlo presented was an emotional and vocally-intense interpretation of Mimì and Rodolfo that left us with a lingering heartfelt memory of the tragic lovers.
At her first entrance, all eyes were on Opolais, wondering whether she could fit in vocally and dramatically with Grigòlo’s impassioned Rodolfo. But the bigger question was how was she to navigate her way through director Franco Zefferelli’s huge stage setting of 19th-Century Bohemian life in Paris which, since its 1981 premiere, has unashamedly dazzled Met audiences. Over the years, critics have bashed Zefferelli for what they have considered his over-the-top, action-packed production, dripping in excessive opulence. But they have lost the battle. Audiences have always loved the production and the Met has reaped a gargantuan financial profit with its popular success.
From the beginning, Ms. Opolais expressed Mimi’s penchant for melancholy with a vocal tenderness she sustained right through to her demise in Act Four. And Grigòlo attentively partnered her, never failing to cover his impetuous, romantic outbursts with his own brand of sadness. The singers’ apprehension on just how their performances would unfold only heightened their emotional commitment to each other and, luckily, to their audience, as well.
But La Bohème needs a committed ensemble of singing actors to encompass all of Puccini’s musical narrative, and the afternoon’s cast was just what the composer ordered. Rodolfo, who is a poet, shares a garret in the Parisian Latin Quarter with three struggling artists: the painter Marcello, Colline the philosopher, and the musician Schaunard. Baritone Massimo Cavalletti and basses Oren Gradus and Patrick Carfizzi, respectively, imbued their roles with a warm vocal charm that expressed their characters’ carefree, but, when necessary, levelheaded approach to their rambunctious life style. Also, as performers, their confident, relaxed stage presence gave Ms.Opolais the artistic support she deserved as she journeyed through Mimì ‘s tragically short time on earth.
Puccini, in an overt display of his deft theatrical know-how, gives us a second romance in which to revel. In Act Two, at the outdoor Cafe Momus, we meet Musetta, a fun-loving woman who is still harboring a deep passion for her former lover Marcello. With soprano Susanna Philips, we got the full vocal and dramatic thrust of her Musetta as she seductively worked her way back to her beloved. Phillips, who debuted the role this year at the Met, delighted the audience with her alluring aplomb. In Act Four, when she brings Mimì to the garret where Mimì and Rodolfo first fell in love, Phillips easily handled her theatrical cues giving Opolais full opportunity to share Mimì ‘s intimate last moments, not only with the heartbroken Rodolfo, but also with the audience. Opolais’s last hushed words created a trembling quiet throughout the house.
And the spirited, attentive hand of conductor Stefano Ranzani made sure the pit went along with this unexpected, but no doubt, tender rendering of Puccini’s youthful, stirring masterpiece.