There’s a reason it’s the world’s most popular and the Met’s most-performed opera. It’s one of the few where literally everyone is likable. There are no villains, only the occasional foil, and the darkness and tragedy comes from the real-life horror of poverty. And in an era where highly-educated liberal arts majors are living in their parents’ basements (instead of an unheated garret) because no one values their contributions, it is, perhaps, more relevant than ever.
The story is so well-known that it really only remains to discuss how well it was executed, and in this production, that is very well indeed. With perfect period costumes and Zeffirelli’s glorious and elaborate set, this is the decayed, Bohemian Paris we all somehow wish we could experience, even if it was to go as badly for us as it does for Mimi, Rodolfo and the others.
This production is very traditional. But sometimes beautifully executed and traditional is enough. Not every production needs to be groundbreaking to be wonderful, and this one is.
The four Bohemians are just great to a man. Not only can they sing, they call can act, so their interplay makes this version incredibly entertaining to watch Rodolfo (Michael Fabiano) is wonderfully expansive and optimistic. Marcello (Lucas Meacham) is as cranky and crusty and heart-of-gold as you can wish. Schaunard (Alexey Lavrov) is a perfect example of the Bohemian attitude of taking life’s joys wherever you can find them as you know that tomorrow is likely to not turn out well. And Colline (Matthew Rose) is the serious and philosophical counterpoint to them all. His splendid third act “old coat” aria is a showstopper. Whenever these four are on stage together wonderful things happen.
The first scene is utterly charming with Rodolpho and Marcello setting the stage of their good-natured poverty. Then Schaunard’s newfound wealth rescues them all. The bit where they swindle Benoit (Paul Plishka) who pulls the usual double duty as Alcindoro as well, out of the overdue rent is also as charming as you could wish.
Mimi is sung by Sonya Yoncheva, who put in the Met in HD’s very excellent Tosca just a month ago. She is a very different character here, though equally youthful. But Mimi is shyer and sweeter. She is a working girl, who sews lovely flowers for the wealthy while dreaming of a better life than what she can find in her poverty-stricken situation. When we meet her, she already has tuberculosis as she is faint even as she is meeting her love for the first time.
Yoncheva and Fabiano have fine chemistry and this scene and all its business are delightful. You can see Mimi coming out of her shell and warming to his charm. But here is one of two quibbles with this production. Every time we see Mimi, in the middle of winter, dying of consumption, she’s wearing a very low-cut summery dress and dragging her loosely crocheted decorative shawl around in a way that won’t warm her up. When she complains that she’s cold it’s sort of obvious why that is. She’d be wearing more seasonally appropriate working-class clothing, even if she was poor, especially if she was.
The same goes for Musetta (Susanna Phillips), who is certainly not musically, but acting-wise the weak link here. She’s great in the Fourth Act while she’s playing all concern and sweetness in helping the dying Mimi, but you don’t really get the naughtiness you need out of Musetta. You don’t see her really enjoying taking all the guys for a ride and winding Marcello up. She sings the lines beautifully, but there’s something missing in the acting. Musetta’s dress in Act II, where she gets to sing her big number is also hideous. She should be trashy, of course, but the costume is just unattractive and does nothing for her, which is a shame.
The Met spared no expense in loading the stage with singers for Act II, but it was almost more overcrowded than bustling. It was hard to keep focus.
The sad wind down of Act III and Act IV brings the spotlight back to our Bohemian friends and their tragedy, and everyone plays these portions superbly. And the singing is splendid, of course.
As always, the backstage interview portions are a highlight of these HD productions from Fathom Events and filled the intervals with interesting and entertaining facts. There was a lovely interview with Paul Plishka about his years with the Met and retirement that he keeps coming out of. We got to hear Fabiano and Yoncheva talk about their collaboration and how nice it was for Yoncheva to be at the Met so much as she got to spend time with her family. Fabiano talked about his charity work helping to bring music to underprivileged students. Three non-singing actors were interviewed to explain about the other parts the opera provides for actors and the longevity of these non-singing parts.
The Zeffirelli set is so large it requires all three of the Met’s stage trucks in order to move it around, and we got a great explanation and view of that as it was happening.
Finally, we got a preview of the upcoming “Fantasy Coney Island” set for Cosi Fan Tutte. Where Christopher Maltman and Ben Bliss and Adam Plachetka gave it their all and director Phelim McDermott explained his vision for the production.
Tickets are available for Cosi Fan Tutte and upcoming productions through Fathom Events.
Photographs by Ken Howard.