I finally saw the Met's popular and famed Zeffirelli production of Puccini's La Boheme yesterday. I was not disappointed at all!
Ailyn Perez was a lovely Mimi and sung with a gentle, sure voice. Her Rodolfo was Michael Fabiano who handled this tough tenor role very well and had great acting skill. The rest of the cast was very good which included Alessio Arduini, Alexey Lavrov and Susanna Phillips. I think the only complaint I had about the production was Musetta's dress worn during her famous aria. It made Phillips look like a dancing red velvet cupcake. But considering the nature of Musetta, I guess I have to say it fits her.
What really fascinated me was how this dour little tale became the most famous of all operas. And not only famous but considered the most romantic. Why? Well the music, dressed with lovely singing, has to be the most beautiful opera ever written. But the story, I see it as not only about abandoned people living in poverty but as the seeds of 20th century destruction. The subtext is societal collapse. The carefree, free floating and nihilistic lifestyle of Marcello, Rodolfo and Schaunard came to be celebrated and romanticized. Their whole "Me, Me, Me, I do what I want in life and no one can tell me otherwise" has led to an uncivil, irresponsible society we have now. What is even more fascinating is that I believe Puccini understood this very well. He makes it quite clear that Musetta and Mimi resort to working as demimondaines due to their loves not wanting to grow up, marry, and really create a loving family. Marcello and Rodolfo create nothing, nothing ever comes of their "art". Instead they loaf around, engage in petty theft and wallow in self deception.
The love story is merely some kind of whim on Rodolfo's part. But when the going gets tough, when Mimi needs a partner most, someone who can help her keep what little health she has left...Rodolfo abandons her. This needs to be understood and Puccini does not gloss this over. He has leading male admit fully to not wanting to be present when Mimi finally falls deathly ill. Mimi only returns to him when she is on her last tether. Even then Rodolfo is a failure for her. If his love was really as majestic as he claimed, why did he throw her away? Mimi even says that she was afraid he would not want her or let her into his apartment again.
The story strikes me as horribly pathetic and needlessly cruel. However we have to keep in mind that the characters are in their late teens, early twenties and not more than 26. This kind of crazy behavior is in character for people so young. Still, the absolute refusal of either leading male characters to step up and be adults is why we have such tragedy.
I love how Puccini kept it all so basic, so simple. The music doesn't get in the way of the acting or the singing. It creates very clear pictures in the audience's mind of how these people live and act. When in Act 3 Mimi tells Marcello how Rodolfo yells at her and then Rodolfo states he wants to abandon Mimi before she really gets ill...I saw into their life. I saw the poor, squalid little room they lived in. I saw a man who didn't want to be responsible or extend effort into caring for another human being. I saw a woman clinging to what little comfort she had in love. I saw a man yelling at an extremely ill woman, causing her stress and giving her worse tubercular coughing fits. And I saw him leaving the house as she tried to gasp for breath. That isn't romance, dear readers, that is sheer misery, sheer torture. This story left me stunned and heartbroken.
The sets are still gorgeous even though this production is now over 40 years old. The scene stopper is the town square where Cafe Momus is located. Two tiers of stage designed with canny forced perspective to give the impression of a huge Paris that just keeps expanding. Zeffirelli really melds stagecraft with a cinematic look that amazes the eye. This isn't an opera to be missed and should be seen at least once in a lifetime.