Since its 1981 premiere, Franco Zeffirelli’s iconic production of Puccini’s “La Bohème” has never failed to enthrall and devastate audiences with its vivid representation of the tragedy of young love. When it returned to the Metropolitan Opera stage on March 19, the audience’s affection for the piece could not have been more apparent. Not only did the classic staging thrill the enthusiastic crowd, but the cast of budding artists also delivered a musically superb and dramatically fresh presentation.
While the story is set in Paris around 1830, the situations and emotions of the protagonists are timeless. The opera opens on Christmas Eve in a shabby garret inhabited by four struggling artists. After three of the friends leave to celebrate at a local café, their tuberculosis-stricken neighbor Mimi comes knocking. She is in need of a light for her candle, and the poet of the group, Rodolfo, happily obliges. As is often the case in opera, the two immediately fall in love, and for the remainder of the evening, viewers are carried along as the lovers experience both life-changing passion and heartbreaking loss.
This infatuated couple was exuberantly portrayed by Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo and Romanian soprano Anita Hartig. In his third appearance at the Met, Grigolo has already established himself as something of a showman, and he certainly brought high energy to this performance. His character’s intense loves—life, art, and, of course, Mimi—were all apparent in Grigolo’s broad gestures and punchy vocalism. The tenor has a naturally light tone that fits the role nicely, but he occasionally pushed too hard in the upper register.
In her debut, Hartig was an absolutely perfect Mimi. With a fragile demeanor and striking beauty, she was completely believable as the smitten seamstress, but it was her expressive voice that was even more enchanting. Hartig sang with impeccable lyric phrasing and a warm timbre. As the orchestra swelled below her in key moments, the soprano delivered plush, soaring high notes that could melt hearts. One can only hope that she returns to New York often.
The second couple to share the stage, the painter Marcello and his on-again-off-again sweetheart, Musetta, has a far more tempestuous relationship. While baritone Massimo Cavalletti brought a rich, dark tone to his character, it was his partner, debutant Jennifer Rowley, who made the bigger impact. With a supple instrument and shimmering high notes, the audience could not help but fall under her spell. She was electric onstage, filling out Musetta’s oversized persona with a wealth of spunk and charm.
Maestro Stefano Ranzani led the Met Orchestra in a tight reading of this popular score. Although these musicians can certainly play “La Bohème” by rote, they still managed to capture the vitality inherent in Puccini’s music.
With each passing season, classic Met productions are being discarded in favor of those that present more modern perspectives. Granted, these new approaches can be quite effective, but despite its age, Zeffirelli’s vision has never seemed more vibrant. With its extraordinarily realistic scenery, the staging transports viewers to the heart of Paris. More importantly, it tastefully captures the youthful soul of Puccini’s enduring masterpiece.
It is a production for which the Met is known worldwide and, as was evident from the packed auditorium, it continues to sell well at the box office. One would never dare remove the “Mona Lisa” from the Louvre or close Rome’s Colosseum—why discard this treasure of the Met’s collection?
Every Columbia student can find something to love in “La Bohème.” It can serve as a perfect introduction to opera or a sophisticated date night, and Broadway fans familiar with the musical “Rent” should be happy to see the opera on which that piece is based. Here is a story relatable to all young people living and loving in the big city, and the music is extremely accessible without becoming trite. If you’ve ever wished to attend an opera, see “La Bohème.”
Performances of Puccini’s “La Bohème” run through April 18. More information can be found online at metoperafamily.org. Tickets start at $17.