From the grating tritone in the second measure, the music of La bohème alerts us to the tumultuous and tempestuous life of the bohemian. Giacomo Puccini’s opera remains enormously popular over a century after its première, ranking as the fourth most performed opera in the 2015/16 season. The Metropolitan Opera alone has given it over 1,200 times (including a four-month run last season) and Franco Zeffirelli’s 1981 production has virtually achieved canonical status. This evening’s performance saw the triple debuts of Angel Blue as Mimì, Duncan Rock as Schaunard and Alexander Soddy conducting, alongside an impressive cast of returning singers.

Dmytro Popov (Rodolfo) and Angel Blue (Mimì)
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera

Soddy’s vigorous conducting sent the performance off to a rousing start as brass and woodwinds galloped through dotted rhythms while Marcello and Rodolfo quibbled over what to sacrifice to their fire. Their garret was sparsely furnished and conveyed a sense of bohemian poverty, although the bluish lighting was jarring alongside the faint orange glow of the fire. The highly anticipated pair of arias “Che gelida manina” and “Sì, mi chiamano Mimì” were executed convincingly, with a moving performance from Blue especially. Popov sang the lines mostly with ease and finesse but tensed up on his higher lines at times. Blue's resonant timbre remained consistent, although the softer lines felt more engaged than the forte and fortissimo ones. The offstage close to the first act duet was appropriately passionate but poorly balanced, with Popov's voice dominating.

Brigitta Kele (Musetta)
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera

Act 2 features an impressively large set with multitudes of people milling about the crowded streets of Paris' Latin Quarter, a dazzling setup for which the audience expressed their approval. One can especially appreciate the quality and longevity of Zeffirelli's production here with the cosy interior of the Café Momus juxtaposed with the boisterous commotion of the street. The Met's brass section handled the orchestral introduction with masterly élan, effectively conveying the sense of pandemonium with the persistent parallel fifths in the music. Brigitta Kele shone here, portraying a blatantly flirtatious and renegade Musetta, as did the children’s chorus, who sang in counterpoint with the toy vendor Parpignol’s caroling and cajoling. The onstage military band marching across the stage provided an ebullient close.

Harp and flutes introduce the third act with a solemn descending line. The frigid cold was made palpable with the diaphanous screen between stage and audience in addition to the snow sprinkling down onto the singers. The music suffered due to some overly slow tempi and, at other times, dull or impassive singing. Blue’s vocal performance was nonetheless laudable, devoid of any tension, while Popov again strained at higher notes. The emphatic fortissimo cadence closing the act contrasted appropriately with the hushed music preceding it.

Duncan Rock (Schaunard)
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera

The fourth act has many memorable moments, including Colline’s 'Coat aria' and the finale itself, although the performance did not deliver fully in all of these cherished moments. Of special note was Schaunard’s spirited dancing onstage during the four bohemians’ parody of a plentiful banquet – the sense of playful exuberance was well-depicted. Colline’s aria bidding farewell to his beloved coat was appropriately doleful but lacking in its necessary gravity and solemnity. The final few moments of the opera, just after Rodolfo discovers that Mimì has died, can be intensely moving, but the orchestra’s fortississimo did not feel markedly different from its fortissimo, rendering the ending almost bathetic. Likewise, Popov’s impassioned cries of “Mimì!” were pronounced but lacking tearful poignancy.

In spite of several blips, the overall experience was one of refined polish and careful attention to detail, as is to be expected with Zeffirelli’s enduring production of one of the operatic canon’s most beloved staples.