by James R. Oestreich
THE NEW YORK TIMES
These poor in particular, it seems, we will always have with us. The impoverished yet spirited young aesthetes of Puccini’s “La Bohème,” that is, in Franco Zeffirelli’s grandiose production, which returned to the Metropolitan Opera on Monday and runs through much of the season.
The Met has performed “Bohéme” more than 1,200 times, more than any other opera. The Zeffirelli staging dates from 1981 and is surely one of the Met productions most often revived.
And most beloved, when it is not most reviled. Some of us veer back and forth, the sticking point being the second act, set at the Café Momus in Paris.
“So much noise,” the libretto reads in the Met’s seat-back titles. “So many people.” That seems to have been Mr. Zeffirelli’s guiding philosophy in producing a veritable population explosion on two levels, complete with a stage band leading the exit.
The single donkey and the single horse crossing the stage always seem gratuitous, and you have to wonder how long such conspicuous consumption can survive amid the company’s current budgetary constraints. Yet the spectacle invariably elicits applause, and the production is one of the few that still guarantee crowds.
In any case, the Met seems to be trying to shift attention this season from productions to voices, and “Bohème” will offer many options in rotating casts. The American soprano Angel Blue, in her company debut, sings Mimì until Oct. 27, and she was the clear star on Monday, combining power, as needed, with sensitivity and warmth.
The Ukrainian tenor Dmytro Popov, who made his Met debut last year as Rodolfo, rises strongly to the role again here but sings it only through Oct. 9, giving way to two other tenors this fall and a third in the spring. The Romanian soprano Brigitta Kele, who also made her company debut last year, as Musetta, makes a vivid impression in that role, though her glittering voice tended to tighten at the top on Monday.
For the rest, the ensemble was vocally strong and well matched: Lucas Meachem as Marcello; Duncan Rock, in his Met debut, as Schaunard; and David Soar as Colline. They were also appealing in their byplay, presumably guided by the revival stage director, Gregory Keller. The veteran bass Paul Plishka smoothly dispatched the roles of the stooges Benoit and Alcindoro.
Also making his Met debut is the English conductor Alexander Soddy, who leads the fall performances. On Monday he showed good care for balances and nuance, and the stellar players seemed to respond well to him. If there was a little slippage among the teeming contingents in Act II and with singers deeply recessed onstage in Act III, that pretty much comes with the Zeffirellian territory.