The Met revived its popular 1981 Franco Zeffirelli production of La bohème on the second day of its new season. The realistic production, complete with a horse-drawn carriage for Musetta in Act 2 amid a huge and crowded two-tiered street scene of Paris on Christmas Eve, a snow covered winter landscape of Act 3, and the Latin Quarter garret of the bohemians, never fails to please the audience. Nearly 40 years after its creation, the production does have one major drawback: while many more recent stagings take advantage of available machinery and technology to facilitate smooth scene changes, the Zeffirelli production requires lengthy intermissions. The “brief” pause between Acts 1 and 2 is long enough to create murmurs among the audience. The interruption of the flow of music was all the more unfortunate when the cast and orchestra, including newcomers to the Met, succeeded in elevating the evening’s performance to something more than routine; it was, at times, extraordinary.

Nicole Car (Mimì) and Vittorio Grigòlo © Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Nicole Car (Mimì) and Vittorio Grigòlo
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera

First and foremost, the young American conductor James Gaffigan, making his Met debut, brought fresh insights and revelation to Puccini’s complex score. The strings never sounded so delicate, the woodwinds vivacious and intimate. There were a couple of shaky brass moments early in the evening, but they did little to spoil the overall excellence of Mr Gaffigan’s music-making. He conducted with a keen sense of the overall arc of the score, while providing support to singers as needed. At times his tempi were a little too luxurious, but the performance was never static or dull. It was amazing to experience notes and phrases that I had never heard before.

The effect of Mr Gaffigan’s nuanced conducting was most apparent in duets and other ensemble singing. He never raised volume for climax, but continued to weave the music around the voices. The beginning of Act 1 saw the personalities of the four bohemians drawn with unusual distinctness. In the chaotic Act 2 finale, the principals were given plenty of room to sing out their individual thoughts. In the climax of Act 3, when the two couples sing their differing emotions, the orchestra did not overwhelm the voices, as can often be the case, but expressed the sadness of Mimì and Rodolfo’s parting with plaintive tugging of strings. It was only at the very end, when Rodolfo cries out for Mimì after her death, that the orchestra played with full volume, as if to wash away his sorrow.  

Étienne Dupuis (Marcello) © Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera
Étienne Dupuis (Marcello)
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera

Nicole Car, making a Met debut as Mimì, has a sympathetic stage presence with sensitive acting skills. Her voice is small and lacks power to project in a big house like The Met; however, she sang with lyricism and delicate tenderness. Her Rodolfo, Vittorio Grigòlo, tended to over-sing but also attempted softness. Another debutant, Étienne Dupuis sang Marcello with warmth, charm and ease, an unusual but refreshing interpretation. His understated acting was effective; he conveyed more emotion by standing still than with any gesture or movement. Matthew Rose as Colline and David Luciano as Schaunard completed the strong ensemble of male friends. Angel Blue, who made a Met debut in 2017 as Mimì, switched her role to Musetta this time round. Her voice is full and sumptuous, but also versatile.  After singing “Quando m'en vo'” with tasteful exuberance, she finished not with a big extended note but with a delightful and witty soft whisper of a sound, utterly charming.

Act 2 © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Act 2
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

The unexpected success of the evening proves, once again, that an opera is first and foremost a musical performance. If one can get a good ensemble of singers and a conductor with a clear view of the essence of the music, one does not need a new expensive production to attract the audience. From the first note of the evening, Mr Gaffigan and the Met Orchestra drew me into the familiar world of poor Parisian artists as if I was experiencing their trials and sorrows for the first time. It has been a long time since I cried at Mimì’s death, but this evening I did.