Riccardo Frizza Leads Fresh, Moving Bohème

Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, NY; January 19, 2015–Although there are few expressions in music criticism worse than “perennial favorite”, there really is no other way to describe both La bohème and the Metropolitan Opera’s now 34-year-old production by Franco Zeffirelli. The opera needs no apologies or explanations; Zeffirelli’s gigantic, realer-than-real production, on the other hand, split critics down the middle when it was new and continues to do so. Annoyed by the grandeur Zeffirelli found necessary to tell a simple love story, some thought that the sets devoured the individual singers, while most enjoyed the spectacle and the excitement. I have always been of the latter mind, and revisiting the opera this season was a joy.

Riccardo Frizza led a beautiful, empathetic, sensitive reading of the work, perfectly at one with his wonderful cast. It is easy for this score to fall into bathos bathed in schmaltz; Frizza and his singers humanized every aspect, from the high jinks of the first act through the ultimate sadness. Using, but not relying on rubato and portamento, with no exaggeration, the story came across simply and poignantly, and the Met Orchestra gave it the attention it gives to Shostakovich and Wagner.

Last year, soprano Kristine Opolais sang Mimi on a Friday night and filled in for an ailing soprano the next day at the matinee as Madama Butterfly. This tour de force was widely reported, and the Butterfly, which I heard and saw, was magnificent. Now that the dust has settled, one can also pay attention to her Mimi. In short, it is a lovely reading of the part, emphasizing Mimi’s fragility from the start. Opolais acts economically, and sings without ever forcing. There were moments when one wished for more volume, for a bit more blossoming at the top, but Mimi’s two arias—particularly the third-act “Addio, senza rancor”—went straight to the heart and earned her loving ovations.

Jean-Francois Borras was her attentive, smitten Rodolfo. A true lyric tenor with a bright tone and no baritonal underpinnings, his ease above the staff, comfort on stage, and smooth legato was reminiscent at times of a very young Pavarotti—hardly faint praise. Baritone Mariusz Kwiecien has almost too much presence and voice for Marcello; his luxurious tone and star power almost overwhelmed the rest of the cast.

Soprano Marina Rebeka, who impressed earlier in the season as Violetta, sang securely and musically as Musetta, but she lacked originality and a special “stamp” in the role. The same might be said for rich-voiced bass David Soar as Colline. It’s hardly the most glistening of roles, but Soar had trouble standing out in the crowd. Not so the Schaunard of Alessio Arduini, warm of voice and charismatic. John Del Carlo, with a gigantic figure and sound, did excellent double duty as Benoit and Alcindoro.

Perennial favorite that it is, Zeffirelli’s Bohème continues to move audiences, particularly with conductor and singers of one, musico-dramatic mind.