The remarkable spell of musical and theatrical excellence that has enveloped almost everything the Metropolitan Opera has done here this week continued last night with a fresh, endearing "La Bohe me."
This is the new production that Franco Zeffirelli staged at the Met last season almost directly after Gian Carlo Menotti's new version here for the Washington Opera. There was much talk then about differences between the two, but the truth is that in a broad sense both had the same aim--to strip Puccini's opera of the layers of tear-jerky sentiment that encrusted it over the years and restore a human scale to this simple tale of the flower children of Paris in the 1830s. Both succeeded.
But what was most startling about last night's performance was the extent to which conductor James Levine also has stripped the touches of musical garishness that had become a habit in some performances of the evanescent score. To some it will sometimes seem almost too sober a "Bohe me" in the orchestra, at least until the harmonic and instrumental clarity of Levine's interpretation begins to register. But, as it comes out, it is not at all cool; it is very much a thinking person's "Bohe me," and it is quite beautiful.
The Rodolfo of tenor Giuliano Ciannella, who is another of the exciting discoveries the Met has saved for this tour, touched hearts to the core. Ciannella's Rodolfo is the freshest, most credible this listener has encountered since the young Jose Carreras in the earlier Zeffirelli production that La Scala brought here for the Bicentennial. Ciannella's Rodolfo is dashing, handsome, ardent and full of delightful puppydog fun. He has a light lyric tenor (not quite large enough even for the Italian tenor in "Rosenkavalier" earlier this week). By not pushing it, he managed to sing "Che gelida manina" with the most beautiful clarity of line and evenness.
His baritone alter ego in "Bohe me," the painter Marcello, was done by the redoubtable Richard Stilwell--familiar from the Washington Opera version--singing with his customary style. The other two male bohemians were outstanding: Mario Serini, in particularly fine voice as Schaunard, and Julien Robbins singing Colline's Coat Song splendidly. All four of them blended wonderfully in the many ensemble passages.
As Mimi, Teresa Zylis-Gara had troubled scaling down her voice and coloring it in the opening acts, but it was under easier control later on. Patricia Craig made a bright Musetta without bringing it any special vocal distinction.
The Zeffirelli production is full of tricks of perspective and multilevel complications. The giant Act II Cafe' Momus set with its streets and rows of buildings intersecting at different levels, pulled together by steep stairs in center stage, is almost too much for the Kennedy Center Opera House stage. The 150 or so people were so squeezed that the action often was confusing. Menotti's version worked better here, and he also brought greater richness of invention in this act.
But Zeffirelli handled the pressure-cooker dramatic intensity of Mimi's death in the final act far better, by simply sticking to straightforward dignity, avoiding Menotti's melodramatics.
A warning: be prepared for long intermissions, because the Zeffirelli sets are cumbersome to move without the backstage mechanical equipment at the Met.