One of the toughest challenges for any director of a museum or concert hall is simply recognizing what has been bequeathed by the previous management. This is why young directors, eager to make their mark, routinely succeed in destroying the most beautiful achievements of the past. A typical, especially tragic victim is the Uffizi in Florence, which was transformed by its very German director Eike Schmidt from a warm and vivacious refuge into a sort of hospital for paintings.
The Metropolitan Opera House in Manhattan has done notably well in this regard, even while operagoers simultaneously demand exciting new stagings and the preservation of grand vintage sets. Indeed, the Met’s only real fault on this score — though it is a curious one — is the lamented demise of Chagall’s Magic Flute, which was one of the most famous productions of 20th-century opera. The Met’s very building is wrapped in Chagall: His two huge lobby murals are visible from clear across the plaza. But Chagall’s Flute, which debuted the season after the current opera house opened in 1967, was retired in 1981.
And yet 1981 saw the creation of another timeless masterpiece, one that the Met has had the wisdom to preserve. Italian director Franco Zeffirelli may be best known for his 1968 movie of Romeo and Juliet, but he is also the designer of the longest-lived production of the Met’s most-performed opera: La Bohème.
Puccini’s opera debuted in 1896, but the characters are drawn from a series of 1840s short stories by French writer Henri Murger, and Zeffirelli’s production is of that period. There are three sets for the four acts (the final act returns to the artists’ attic apartment, where the action begins). Each set is perfect. Nothing more or less. There is no room for improvement. And no better example of a staging at once grand and intimate, beautiful and tasteful. Tastefulness is, of all these qualities, the hardest to come by, and in many respects the most precious. Good taste is a gatekeeper to the deepest levels of satisfaction.
The second-act set is the best-known: the Café Momus on Christmas Eve. This festival slice of Parisian streets is complete with cascading steps to a sloping alley with houses and shops and streetlights and balcony railings and, downstairs, the wood-beamed café itself. This immensely rich landscape is animated by 300 players onstage at once, including a gaggle of children clamoring for toys and a military marching band (who actually play their drums and trumpets as they troop along). There is no effect quite like this anywhere else, and it draws enthusiastic and well-earned applause.
But the other two sets, though understated by comparison, are, if anything, even better at conveying the right feel: The artists’ apartment is an imaginative work, a cutaway that permits us to see both the inside and outside of the ramshackle room at the same time. It allows for some wonderful work in the fourth act’s play-duel, where two friends climb out their balcony window and fight with fireplace tongs along the rooftops of Paris.
The third set is the simplest — a winter landscape outside a tavern — but it achieves a beautiful effect by the combination of a light stage snow and a delicate, gauzy scrim interposed between the audience and the action. The scrim was too brightly lit in this performance (note to Met: Tone it down!), but the impression is nonetheless indelibly sweet.
This season brings another fine cast, though with an unusual twist: It is typical that the principal role of Mimì is sung by a more powerful lyric soprano, and the coquettish Musetta by a lighter soubrette-style soprano. In this production, Mimì was sung by Ailyn Pérez and Musetta by Angel Blue, and Miss Blue’s voice is much the stronger of the two. But this arrangement of the voices, though unusual, is more harmonious with their characters: Mimì is self-effacing and fragile (so fragile that she doesn’t quite survive the opera), whereas Musetta is audacious and outgoing. The Musetta role also includes a certain amount of physical comedy in her big number, which is about how everyone stares at her when she walks down the street, and this was overacted by Miss Blue. But her singing was superb, and her performance would be equally good if, like the Met’s scrim lights, it was toned down by about 20 percent.
Puccini’s music has itself been the subject of some critical admonishment — which is to say that serious critics may find it lacking in depth and sophistication. But as long as one fits the music into the proper genre of popular entertainment to which it belongs, it is exactly what it ought to be: bubbly, luscious, sometimes beautiful, often overly sentimental, but nonetheless appealing.
It is curious that in an opera of such famous female roles, the finest musical moments belong to the men: The duet sung by Rodolfo and Marcello as they lament the absence of their respective beloveds — “O Mimì, tu più non torni” — is the most beautiful in the opera, and is more reflective and heartfelt than any of the male–female duets. But best of all, and most curious, is the famous aria sung to an overcoat — “Vecchia zimarra” — where the philosopher Colline resolves to sell his faithful old coat for his friends. Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn’s performance here was truly superior. And, though the cast was altogether good, Van Horn’s Colline and Lucas Meachem’s Marcello were the two outstanding, world-beating performances.
Opera tends to demand that its audience take it very seriously. Sometimes the seriousness borders on masochism — and, if that is your taste, Wagner’s Ring Cycle will return to the Met later this season. But, if all one demands of an opera is an evening of pure and simple enjoyment, nothing fits the bill better than La Bohème.