Zeffirelli's Bohèmians Turn 30

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Wednesday was the 30th anniversary of the premiere of Franco Zeffirelli’s production of La Bohème at the Metropolitan Opera. I was there the opening night and probably have been to a hundred performances since then. It is fair to say that this production, more than any other, changed operagoing at the Met. I doubt there is a subscriber who has not seen it. The production has been the port of entry for newcomers to the art form. Not everyone comes back to see other operas, but quite a few return often to see this same show.

A few facts: the Zeffirelli Bohème has been performed 374 times, more than any other production in Met history. The only seasons in which it was not presented were 1985-86 and 1997-98. It appeared in nine US cities on the 1983 Met tour and in six cities in 1985 (the last domestic Met tour was 1986). It was performed five times last summer on the Met’s tour of Japan, using a slightly modified set.

Before this production, it was common knowledge that the three most popular operas at the Met were A (Aïda), B (Bohème), C (Carmen). Zeffirelli changed all that and this opera looks to be in first place to stay. Bohème has been given 1,245 times (since 1900), Aïda 1,115 times since 1886 and Carmen 971 times since 1884. La Traviata, at 969 performances since 1883, is close behind and will move into third place in April.

I have never completely loved the Zeffirelli Bohéme, for reasons I will describe, but it has undeniable appeal and certainly has earned its renown. The transition, in about four minutes, from the Bohemians’s garret in the first act to the bustling Parisian square and Cafe Momus of Act Two, is a veritable coup-de-theatre that has drawn gasps and cheers from audiences since the first night (Dec. 14, 1981).

Marshaling Forces, Zeffirelli-Style

Franco Zeffirelli is a man of great culture and erudition. I don’t think we will ever see another opera director with his combination of gifts. Most of his productions -- whose scenery he designs -- are beautiful to look at and represent a profound knowledge of literature and art. They do not, however, always create natural spaces for action to occur in a way that makes for interesting theater. His love of stage elevators has often made visually impressive moments that drown out or marginalize music. Above all, while he is a master at moving crowds and making each chorus member and supernumerary (or “extra”) seem like a distinct character, his direction of solo singers in principal roles has been spotty.

A performance by the original cast is preserved on video from the era before HD transmissions. It stars the radiant Teresa Stratas and that most poetical of tenors, José Carreras, as a perfect Mimi and Rodolfo. There was an excellent supporting cast and the production had a freshness and, in the love scenes, an intimacy thanks to the two leads. The problem was, and still is, that there are long stretches of the opera in which all the decoration, stagecraft and crowds (in Act Two) overwhelm the soloists. It is less grievous on TV but a problem in the opera house.

Here are some clips from that television broadcast. First, the famous transition from the Act One curtain to the start of Act Two. With about 240 people on the stage, it is very hard to find the Cafe Momus and the solo characters.

The act continues with the arrival of Renata Scotto (Musetta) and Italo Tajo (Alcindoro), plus Richard Stilwell (Marcello). The set is designed so that crowds teem above but they also interfere with lots of the main action.

To me, Act Three is the most successful in visual terms. It is a wintry day and Mimi finds Marcello to say that she and Rodolfo need to separate. Initially, Gil Wechsler’s lighting design was very sensitive but, in recent years, the scene looks like snowy pea soup. If not tended to, lighting becomes less precise as a production ages. Watch this act in three parts, first with Stratas and Stilwell; then with the arrival of Carreras, and then the beautiful conclusion of the act.

Act Four, like Act One, is set in the Bohemians’s garrett. In the opera house it is perched high and somewhat upstage. It never has had the immediacy it should. But with this cast and the camera in close up, it did not matter. Watch part one, then part two. It is hard not to well up with tears at the start of this clip, due to the superb acting and orchestral playing of Puccini’s melodies, led by James Levine. And then it becomes even more moving as you watch. Finally, part three and curtain calls.

In the years since the first cast, countless singers have transited through these sets. Many are exemplary artists. Important debuts included Angela Gheorghiu (Mimi), Patricia Racette (Musetta), Marcello Giordani (Rodolfo) and conductors Plácido Domingo, Marco Armiliato and Carlos Kleiber. Apart from Stratas, my favorite Mimis were Mirella Freni and Hei-Kyung Hong. Pavarotti, Domingo and Luis Lima were all memorable Rodolfos. Racette and Barbara Daniels were great Musettas because they knew that less is sometimes more, though Scotto in the last act was unforgettable. Peter Mattei, Fabio Capitanucci, Simon Keenlyside  and, especially, Gerald Finley were immensely appealing as Marcello.

Schaunard, boyish, carefree, a bit obtuse, whose most important moment comes in recognizing that Mimi has died, was well played by Mark Oswald and Nathan Gunn. The philosophical Colline was beautifully performed by James Morris and Ferruccio Furlanetto. The double roles of the landlord Benoit and “dirty old man” Alcindoro have been done primarily by three venerable artists: Italo Tajo (46 times between 1981 and 1989), Renato Capecchi (90 times between 1982 and 1994), Paul Plishka (122 times since 2001)

Because the Night Belongs to Lovers

A phenomenon has developed around this production: it has become the opera to attend on a date, whether it is a new young couple or people who have been together for a lifetime. I think this is due, above all, to the 1987 film, Moonstruck, in which Nicolas Cage takes Cher to see this opera at the Met and they learn all kinds of things about themselves and one another. This is the magic of all opera, including La Bohème.

I served as an opera consultant during the making of Moonstruck and it was exciting to see so many people, during the filming, inspired by the music and being in the Metropolitan Opera house. What viewers of the film did not know is that, while the real Met was used for its setting, the Act Three scene in the film was from another company, in Canada if I recall. The voices were of Renata Tebaldi and Carlo Bergonzi.

Ever since, this production has been the venue for important romantic gestures. A note in the Met archive reports that, on December 24, 1993, “As the houselights were dimming, a gentleman from the audience climbed onto the stage apron and proposed marriage to his seated companion; she accepted. The man wished the audience a merry Christmas, and climbed down. No delay occurred.”

On April 10, 1996 Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna performed together for his debut. Sixteen days later they wed. In a curtain speech preceding the opera, General Manager Joseph Volpe announced that the Mimì and Rodolfo, (Gheorghiu and Alagna), had been married the previous night.

At some point during my tenure as performance manager, a couple came to the Met for their fiftieth anniversary. During the show the man was stricken with a heart attack. The house doctor and I tended to him. Later that night, he died in the hospital with his wife at his side. I got in touch with her soon after and invited her for tea. She told me that they had first saw each other in standing room at the old Met at a performance of Bohème, began a courtship and then married. They attended the Zeffirelli production at least once a year. Though sad, she said this was the perfect way for their marriage to conclude.

I chose this production to be my final evening as performance manager. The singers on February 6, 1988 were Freni, Pavarotti, Barbara Daniels, Jonathan Summers (Marcello), Gwynne Howell (Colline) and the luxury casting of Thomas Hampson as Schaunard, all led by the superb Carlos Kleiber. As the final curtain slowly closed, the audience did not applaud (as it often does), but listened to every note, as Puccini would have wanted. I stood in the wings and words from the opera echoed in my ears: Addio, senza rancor.

 

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