Zeffirelli's Bohèmians Turn 30

Thursday, December 15, 2011 - 11:33 AM

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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Comments [14]

arnie- from Manhattan

I,too, continue to love and repeatedly see Boheme. My first Boheme was in my student days in 1954 with Bjoerling and Merrill.Glad to read that you mentioned Hong as a great Mimi. That she is, as well as the most effecting Liu I've ever seen.In the Carreras-Stratas video provided, there is a disconnect between the visual and the audio. Was it studio lip synched for release or just badly synchronized? As for "new interpretations" of Boheme, what is there to re-interpret? It's a simple and beautiful story of Parisian bohemians living and loving in Paris in 1839.Stop with the criminal updates of operas! Don't deny us the pleasure of seeing how people dressed and lived during the time that the operas were set- which excludes the idiocy of dressing these people in jeans, tee shirts or tuxedos. Wonderful articles, Fred. Thanks.

Mar. 24 2012 11:19 AM
Joseph Streisfeld from New York City

I was a supernumerary in this production for several years. The part I played was one of the soldiers dressed in blue and red at the end of Act II.
What fun!! I remember always having to watch the steps on the staircase when marching down.
It was fun being part of the tableau at the end of that act.

Dec. 19 2011 12:37 PM
Kevin Langan from Shrewsbury, NJ

That was my debut (Colline) at the Met in 1990. Musetta's horse and carraige in Act II almost mowed me down at the dress rehearsal. A chorus person grabbed me just in time and pulled me out of the way or my debut might never have happened! Zeffirelli attended our dress that day. It was a fun production to be a part of. In those days you had to scratch your initials into the wooden table in the garret in Act I when you sang in the production. It was a tradition going back to 1981. Don't know if the same table is being used today!

Dec. 16 2011 01:42 PM

Time for this museum piece to go. Also time for the opera to go. There are so many masterpieces that need to be performed by the MET, Boheme's a great score but to bring it back every season? Well, thankfully it's not coming back next season. I hope Gelb sends this mammoth to the Smithsonian and give another director, as "starving artist" like Rodolfo, a chance to present the fresh view that Puccini deserves. But let's wait a few seasons, shall we I for one am Bohemed-out!

One word describes Zefirelli for me: distracting. His productions don't service the music, as accurate as his Tosca was, his staging weakened the story and the drama. Luc Bondy was much more truthful to the drama, though I don't like the sets in acts 1 and 2.

And Freddy, I don't see an opera where the girl dies at the end a great date opera. Same with Traviata and Otello! lol I'd rather take my date to see La Fille du Regiment or L'Elisir d'Amore.

Dec. 16 2011 01:00 PM
Les Bernstein from Miami, Florida

I thought so. I knew I'd probably be the odd man out, having read all the previous posts, and found no one seemed to be jarred by having Act II continue without intermission from Act I. It reminds me of Maestro Giulini's decision to continue the second movement of the "Pastoral" Symphony without pause after the first movement; and Maestro Bernstein began the "Leonore Overture No. 3" without the timpani stroke after the "Namenlose freude" duet at the Vienna State Opera. I think the time scheme so well thought out by masters such as Puccini and Beethoven should adhered to. But the Second Act of "La Bohe'me" in the Zeffirelli staging is just too crowded, too noisy and too distracting. I can well understand that as such it would be the ideal opera to take people to who have never been to one before, but all these years after its debut, I can't help but feel that less and less attention is being paid to what's being sung and played; and that (worse luck, in my opinion), such extravaganzas will be expected in every opera, lest it be considered boring. The set looked like a double-decker bus. I think Mr. Zeffirelli's set for "Turandot" was and is splended; and about the concept for "Tosca," I'd rather not say anything at all. (I also decry the horse in Act III of "Falstaff.) In my heart of hearts, I'd still rather get closer to Puccini's "La Bohe'me" by listening to recordings and imagining as best I can the settings, especially in today's stage director-driven era. One can discover many real delights that might not be as obvious, such as the end of "Che gelida manina" sung in the key it was written in, causing Mimi's "Si', Mi chiamano Mimi'" being all the more arresting since her first note is an augmented fourth from Rodolfo's last note. Whenever I listen to the Stratas, Carreras, Levine performance, I follow the orchestra score and listen to it; and it's a joy.

Dec. 16 2011 11:49 AM
Linda Cantor from New York City

I took my niece, who is not an opera fan, to see La Boheme and I will never forget her whispered comment to me as the curtains opened on the Act 2 Cafe Momus scene: 'Wow, this must be why they call it grand opera." You can't help but gasp no matter how many times you see this.

But my favorite scene is still the act 3 love scene in the snow. The gorgeous music and scenery get to me each time.

Dec. 16 2011 09:33 AM
William V. Madison from New York City

What a lovely guided tour! And I wholeheartedly agree with you as to favorite Mimìs.

But I'm dismayed to learn that the lighting is still murky; a decade ago, the late, great Leighton Kerner was complaining about this, both in print and in private conversations with Met personnel. One of the gentlest critics ever born, he also ENJOYED opera -- even his eleventy-first Bohème -- and wanted each experience to be as special for others as it was for him. So why hasn't the Met fixed the problem?

Dec. 16 2011 09:14 AM

I'm sad to write that I find glaring omissions in the Met's programs and its website. I'd like information about the operas' directors, stagers, costume designers, and so forth. The opera is important visually as well as aurally. Further, other opera companies prominently feature this information. i wonder why this is not the case at the Met.

Dec. 16 2011 12:56 AM
Deborah Asimov from Manhattan

Fred-- like so many people who were new to opera, I owe you forever for being my own personal introduction to La Boheme at The Met. And I myself was not yet 30. It is indeed an extraordinary gateway opera, -- one to incite a young soul to fall in love with opera itself -- at the ultimate venue. How fortunate I consider myself to be, i KNOW myself to be. It is a romantic opera we cherish even more now, as most arts that seem to champion the unromantic and ironic in their spin. We need this particular La Boheme, as we needed some Moonstruck. Indeed, Patti Smith knew it all along! And I loved knowing you then as Performance Manager, an informal tutelage which shaped so much of my life every day ever after. It was a singularly precious experience to see La Boheme through your love of opera and your patience in sharing. And it makes me rejoice this December 16 to be in that snow globe of Paris again through your musical and narrative tour.

Dec. 16 2011 12:20 AM
@willowbarcelona from Connecticut and Barcelona

Dear Mr. Plotkin,

La Bohème rode like a comforting vapor over my young brief marriage. Little did I know that my husband would be Mimi, dying at 33 when I was 29. In the years since I wrote about it, From This Day Forward, published by Times Books in 1983, I save every December 17th as my private La Bohème tribute day. I don’t know if Rodolfo never forgot Mimi, but I have never forgotten the young man who bounded up the steps of Lincoln Center in his black tie, scooping me up and into the elevator to the Opera Club, and announcing at an intermission there that he and I were getting married. The Opera Club actually has a copy of my book in their archives. I think everyone remembers their first Bohème as a couple, and ours was http://archives.metoperafamily.org/archives/scripts/cgiip.exe/WService=BibSpeed/fullcit.w?xCID=231730&limit=2500&xBranch=ALL&xsdate=&xedate=&theterm=La%20Boh%E8me%3A%20Sergeant%20%5BCoffey,%20Frank%5D&x=0&xhomepath=&xhome=, the Rolf Gerard production. At all the many subsequent performances we saw, John would hold my hand throughout the entire opera. The only opera he did this for.

Thank you and bless you for your wonderful article on WQXR’s website today, for your so on-target descriptions of Bohème singers and performances, and for the clips. Although Zefferelli’s production came a few years after my husband’s death, I was so grateful that he kept, and highlighted with such exquisite subtleness, the beauty of Act III.

May the magical snows of that long-ago Parisian winter bring you and those you love great happiness this holiday season. You know whatLa Bohème is. Thank you.

Opera continues to expand my life. New artists, like the amazing @debvoight, @brownleetenor, and the magnificent and kind @joycedidonato, who has yet to meet a stagehand or a dresser she doesn't thank and adore, and works like Nixon in China and what I thought was the ragingly brilliant Tosca that caused such a fuss and a Billy Budd in Barcelona that still defines cutting edge creativity for me are what make this new era of opera, and its HD live performances, such an important part of American.

Now, onto The Enchanted Island!

Dec. 15 2011 08:15 PM
Craig Ash from Freeport, NY

Zeffirelli's Boheme, Act II, is a bit overwhelming, but it is just what a verismo opera needs--the sense of realism for the audience. Of course the Bohemians and girl-friends are visually swamped by the crowd. That is as it should be: the principals are, within Paris, almost non-entities. That's a perfect example of verism. Puccini clarifies their presence for us musically. Mr. Plotkin's essay was a joy for me: Boheme was not my first opera, but when I saw it late in my 12th year (1947), with Sayao and Bjoerling, my life's aims and values were shaken; it was a religious awakening.

Dec. 15 2011 08:13 PM
L. Lubin from Fort Lee, NJ

Some years ago a young latino delivery man was waiting by my desk when he spotted an opera score on the counter. He told me he "sorta liked opera" but he'd never been to one live, and wanted to take his girlfriend. I asked him if he'd seen 'Moonstruck' and he had. I suggested he rent the movie and get tickets for that La Boheme production for about two weeks later. In the meantime he should make all arrangements, in secret, to re-enact that scene from Moonstruck as closely as possible: dinner in the area, a rose, whatever he could manage. He loved the idea, and a nearby co-worker gaped at me, astonished by my romanticism. (I tend toward the curmudgeonly.)
A few months later that young man was in again, this time wearing a wedding ring!

Dec. 15 2011 04:22 PM
Erica Miner from CA

Ah, nostalgia...I was there in the pit for this history-making event. Not surprising your mention that the production has 'changed operagoing more than any other production in Met history.' I'd be willing to bet I performed it more than any other opera in the 21 years I played violin there.

Dec. 15 2011 03:50 PM
Peter O'Malley from Oakland, New Jersey

My wife (Carol) and I have seen this production numerous times,and I think that we would both agree that the Act III set is the most effective. Carol may disagree, but I also think that the Cafe Momus Scene, cinematic and thrilling as it may be, does overwhelm the principals and (despite having seen it before) I still had to do a bit of searching to realize where they were in the opening moments this year.
That said, I would hate to see this production shelved for something trendy and, ultimately, pointless, as the Zeffirelli Tosca was, rail as you might (I know, you weren't railing) against the use of stage machinery and elevators, which were put to use in Act III of the late lamented Tosca staging. even worse: what if Peter G decides he wants something new for Turandot!

Dec. 15 2011 02:03 PM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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