REVIEW OF ZEFFIRELLI’S 1981 MET PRODUCTION
What is the most performed opera at New York’s Metropolitan Opera?
Yes, Sherlock, it is La Boheme.
Franco Zeffirelli’s historic production opened in December 1981 and in January 1982 it was telecast in Europe. Later the production was shown on television. The film with its original cast was streamed last week and it was worth watching for many reasons.
Almost every soprano and tenor have sung the main roles ever since and there seems to be no thought of sending the production to the Elysian Fields for operatic hits. If you are interested in stats, La Boheme has been seen on the Met stage 1344 times and the Zeffirelli production has been performed 521 times. You must allow for cancellations last winter due to COVID-19 pandemic.
Puccini knew how to pluck the heartstrings of his audience. The story of starving artists, youthful shenanigans and young love crushed by cruel fate has all the ingredients for a great libretto. Puccini added superb and unforgettable music that guaranteed endless appeal.
Zeffirelli added his own touch to the 1981 production that brought the house down in New York. The cold garret where the artists live is a realistically imagined shack that does not dampen the spirits of its inhabitants.
The scene in the Momus Café is simply breathtaking. A huge Parisian crowd is celebrating on Christmas Eve and there is a sense of joy and fun that is simply overwhelming. And, yes, there is a donkey and a horse that come across the stage.
The third act on the outskirts of Paris shows a desolate, snow-covered scene where Rodolfo and Mimi will go their separate ways.
All these scenes have been recreated in the 521 performances since 1981. But there is something special about the original cast of the production that makes it memorable. Mimi was sung by the inimitable Teresa Stratas and Rodolfo was sung by the young, handsome and vocally outstanding Jose Carreras. Renata Scotto sang the relatively minor role of Musetta and Richard Stilwell appeared as Marcello.
While Zeffirelli’s lavish, over-the-top production is overwhelming, the 1981 cast added another dimension that wowed the audience. Teresa Stratas as Mimi appeared fragile, delicate, weak and very sick. Her large eyes and prominent cheeks bespoke of a young woman in the throes of fatal consumption. She faints. But she is also playful, appealing, and attracted to Rodolfo. She sings with vocal splendor and deeply felt pathos. It is a masterful performance by Stratas and a coup by Zeffirelli.
Jose Carreras of the great tenor voice is young and believable. We ought not to comment on the appearance of singers but if you have seen many more Rodolfos and Mimis than you can count on your fingers, you will realize that many of them fall short of the physical appearance of a young and handsome man and a seriously ill, consumptive girl however well they may sing.
Renata Scotto follows the rule of never-a-bad performance and her Musetta is simply delightful.
James Levine conducted the Met Opera Orchestra with verve in an outstanding performance.
The colour film from 1982 is not up to today’s standards and there were green borders on each side of the screen. You do not notice it after a while.
The performance was directed for television by Kirk Browning and here there was a noticeable and delightful difference between some of the work done on Live from the Met telecasts. All too often, the director for cinema treats the performance as if it were a video game. Some shots last for mere seconds when there is no conceivable reason to click to another angle. We are used to watching opera from our seat without countless clicks.
Browning kept a steady hand on the shots and angles, and we could enjoy what we saw without fear of losing the scene with another click.
La Bohème by Giacomo Puccini was streamed on July 19, 2020 by the Metropolitan Opera. It is available on Met Opera on Demand for a fee. See www.metopera.org for more information.