New Voices In Met’s “Zeffirelli Bohème”

Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center, NY; January 19, 2016–It’s always nice to check in with the Met’s opulent, extravagant, now-34-year-old production of La bohème, just one of two Franco Zeffirelli productions that remain (the other is his Turandot). Zeffirelli was one of the 20th century’s great directorial and design maximalists, and his production still produces “oohs” and “ahhs” from those who experience it for the first time, and the Met audience at the performance I saw was a decidedly young-ish (under 40) crowd that was quite bowled over by it. Naysayers have complained that it is too grand, too busy, too crowded, but the public loves it. And frankly, so do I.

Soprano Hei-Kyung Hong, now singing at the Met for more than 30 years, still amazes with the freshness and sheer beauty of her voice, and her Mimi is more than a creditable interpretation. Also for 30 years we’ve wished for more of a bloom at the top of the voice, an opening up of what is most certainly a lovely flowery sound, but you can’t always get what you want and Hong delivers more than enough, with intelligent phrasing and lovely dynamic shading.

Tenor Jean-François Borras sings with remarkable sensitivity as Rodolfo, caressing phrases with a warmth rarely heard. His high notes shine–the B-natural near the close of “Che gelida manina” was rock solid, if clipped a bit short (the aria is transposed down a half-tone), and he totally inhabits the role. Quinn Kelsey’s giant voice and presence make for a wonderful Marcello–you actually believe the friendship between the men on stage. Susanna Phillips offered an unnecessarily noisy second act as Musetta, but is much better in her tender moments near the opera’s close. Schaunard actually comes to life in the person and voice of David Pershall; Kihwan Sim’s Colline is bland.

Dan Ettinger leads a startlingly slow performance, one that allows for even more sadness than usual, with larger climaxes, but that also occasionally gives the impression that it’s about to come to a full stop. Is it really necessary to linger over the farm women at the start of Act 3? And Ettinger is lucky to have singers with long breaths, or the Mimi/Rodolfo duet in Act 3 and “O Mimi tu più non torni” for Borras and Kelsey in the last act would have collapsed. However, I must admit that Ettinger has a convincing overall concept of the opera, resulting in a fine evening for a mid-season repertory staple.