A band of lost boys, living high above the twentieth century’s urban world, who won’t grow up, led by a free spirit unable to trust the love of the girl who loves him totally.

J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan?

Think again.

Giacomo Puccini’s La Boheme.

Imagine Peter cradling a dying Wendy in his arms and you have the final moments of one of the world’s most moving operatic masterpieces.

The Met’s current production of Franco Zeffirelli’s imaginative construction accentuates the magic of Puccini’s story to highlight the two stories’ similarities. Rodolfo, the poet, Marcello, the painter, Colline, the philosopher, and Schaunard the musician would rather suffer than get a bourgeois job in order to provide the essentials of living. Two working women, Musetta, a grisette, and Mimi (actually “Lucia”, the light bearer) periodically drop in and out of the ringleaders’ lives, sustaining them with their offerings of selfless love.

Marcello and Rodolfo, the Sam and Frodo of the tale, have trouble with their female relationships because they haven’t yet grown up. Rodolfo especially can’t bring himself to believe that he is worthy of Mimi’s total love. As played so brilliantly by Michael Fabiano, Rodolfo’s distrust is a destructive agent as his poet searches for reasons to reject a love he cannot understand. Sonya Yoncheva”s equally magnificent portrayal of Mimi is unrelenting in her forgiveness, mercy, and sacrificial love. She would gladly give her very life to be with the man she loves. Instead she willingly obeys Rodolfo to move in with a viscount whose way of life can better tend to Mimi’s illness.

As the opera’s leads, Ms. Yoncheva and Mr. Fabiano are well-matched vocally, and have developed characters with psychologies which appropriately, yet tragically, frustrate any hope they might have for a happy ending together.

Lucas Meachem’s Marcello provides one of the most detailed and nuanced characterizations of Marcello you are ever likely to see. At times his listening and reacting is the most interesting thing happening on stage. Mr. Meachem uses Susanna Phillips’ flirtatious Musetta, Alexey Lavrov’s Schaunard, and Matthew Rose’s Colline to weave a complementary subplot working aside the main plot action.

All of the actors and singers on stage are handled lovingly and meticulously by the master storyteller Franco Zeffirelli. No detail is extraneous, no action too unimportant, no movement insignificant. The staging of the Act III opening at the toll house is breathtakingly beautiful to look act and extraordinarily revealing in the information it imparts to the audience through action alone. Zeffirelli knows just where to place an actor and in what type of light for maximum dramatic and emotional effect. Consequently, everyone on stage seems confident about what they are to do because they are in such capable hands. Revival Stage Director J. Knighten Smit work is a loving tribute to a master stage director.

Franco Zeffirelli’s 1981 production of Puccini’s La Boheme is simply  the most popular production in the history of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, and quite possibly the most popular American opera production ever for good reason.

The Met has offered over 1200 performances of Zeffirelli’s Boheme. On average the opera house has been 94 percent filled. As of 2007, the live production has been seen by more than four million operagoers and brought in over $140 million to the box office.[i]

This is the production at which Nicholas Cage wooed Cher in Moonstruck, and at which Placido Domingo made his Metropolitan Opera conducting debut in 1984. An all-star cast of Teresa Stratas, as Mimi, Jose Carreras as Rodolpho, and Renata Scotto as Musetta led Newsweek’s critic to capture the magic of the opening night:

At dawn, outside a warmly flowing tavern on the outskirts of Paris, a gentle snow is falling over two figures -Mimi and Rodolfo, who are trying to patch up their bittersweet romance. A man bundled up in black rushes out of the tavern, oblivious to the young lovers, intent only on getting home. Hurrying down a boulevard, he stops, puts up a black umbrella and disappears into the wintry chill. If the shimmering rapture of Puccini’s music isn’t enough to make your heart stop, this ghostly bit of stage business will, and it is but one of many theatrical masterstrokes in the Metropolitan Opera’s magnificent new production of “La Bohème.”

An opera house without a “Bohème” is a Shakespeare company without a “Hamlet,” but the Met had not had a real “Bohème” its own for some time. Its last production was borrowed from the Lyric Opera of Chicago, a drab, uninspired affair with coarse staging. By hiring director/designer Franco Zeffirelli, the Met decided to correct matters with a vengeance. The flamboyant Italian’s previous, spectacular staging of the opera – for La Scala in 1963 – has long set the standard for international “Bohèmes,” and he Met gave him a lavish bankroll to outdo himself (underwritten by a generous patroness, Mrs. Donald D. Harrington). Zeffirelli did just that: his new “Bohème” makes the superb La Scala production look like a warm-up.

Zeffirelli understands what the Puccini scholar Mosco Carner has written about “Bohème” – that it is “the first opera in history to achieve an almost perfect fusion of romantic and realistic elements with impressionist features.” His own fusion is masterly. From the smoking chimneys rising above the Paris rooftops on which Rodolfo’s garret perches to the icicles on the tavern in the snow scene, from the literally hundreds of Parisians going about their Christmas Eve in the gorgeously expansive Latin Quarter scene to the intimate “close-up” scenes in which the singers seem really engaged in conversation, Zeffirelli brings out all of the opera’s marvelously spontaneous, almost improvisatory quality.

Elegy: At the same time he knows that “Bohème” is essentially a dream, Puccini’s intensely romantic elegy to his youth as a hungry conservatory student. The vast, subtly changing sky behind the garret – silver-gray in Act I, rosy-peach in Act IV – has the visionary quality of Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings. The carnival atmosphere of Act II, complete with a stilt walker, dancing bear and Musetta’s horse-drawn hansom cab, is a Delacroix riot of reds and golds. Zeffirelli stages the mock duel between Colline and Schaunard in Act IV as a mad scamper along the rooftops – shades of “Scaramouche.[ii]

In his autobiography Zeffirelli attempts to explain the genesis of the production’s triumphant success:

What so intrigued the audience about my new Boheme was the way I treated the role of Mimi, the waif whose last love-affair, as she dies of consumption, is the subject of the opera. Every production I had ever seen had had Mimi arrive at the artist’s studio (where she meets the poet Rodolfo) as a beautiful, radiant young woman. Only later does she succumb to her illness. This seemed to me to make a nonsense of the piece. Why, I asked, does she immediately faint in front of him? The problem in other productions has been that the average soprano is just too big and healthy to do what the libretto and the score demand, so the truth is usually fudged. But I had Stratas again and, as no one else before, she could be both beautiful and waif-like. We researched the whole nature of the consumptive, once a major theme in European art, now happily a thing of the past. Puccini in La Boheme, as indeed Verdi in La Traviata, was familiar with all the details of the illness and of the way its sufferers behaved. The con­sumptive was often granted a pale, ethereal beauty which many found very attractive. Apparently, some robust young men claimed to derive pleasure from making love to these dying creatures. Consumptives had strange patterns of behavior that both operas play on. There would be unexpected remissions in the decline of the sufferer, who would suddenly experience a surge of strength and well-being, only to see it slip away again. [iii]

But the elite of the cultura world have a problem with Zeffirelli’s La Boheme. Just as Andrew Wyeth’s 1948 “Christina’s World” is the most popular painting at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and just as Leonardo da Vinci’s 1503 “Mona Lisa” is the most popular painting at Paris’ Musee de Louvre, the elite critics are not happy about the public’s taste in this traditional  production.

In the elite mind, popular approval such as that given to Zeffirelli’s La Boheme, is a sign the work is not very good. It seems the more the general public is baffled, bored, or outraged, the higher the esteem given by the elite purveyors of cultural merit. (Just look at the new outer space production of La Boheme at the Paris Opera for a prime example.

Verdi knew best when he explained the only criterion for judging a work’s merit:

If the public comes the object is attained, if not – no…The theatre I intended to be full and not empty. That’s something you must always remember.[iv]

Talk of replacing Zeffirelli’s production with a new one is like talk of  replacing Wyeth’s with a newly commissioned portrait of Anna Christina Olson or da Vinci’s with a new contemporary portrait of Lisa del Giocondo.

But for now, we can savor the glories on the Met stage. Tenor Michael Fabiano is the poor poet Rodolfo who falls head over heels for his neighbor, the seamstress Mimi, sung by soprano Sonya Yoncheva. The two great actor-singers bring what Arthur Koestler calls “Split consciousness” to their characters’ situations.

There is a tragic plane and a trivial plane, which contain two mutually incompatible kinds of experienced knowledge. Most of our lives are lived on the everyday, trivial plane, but in moments of elation or danger, we find ourselves transferred to the tragic plane. The latter, with its cosmic perspective, drowns out for while the shallow frivolities of life, but they always return, and sometimes the two perspectives coexist.[v]

The two actors fearlessly navigate the two planes, line by line, song by song, act by act, sometimes tilting toward the tragic, sometimes toward the trivial, always in control, always eyeing the tragic denouement to come. Their performances illustrate philosopher Julian Barnes’ belief that “we are always at the mercy of chance, and it is precisely this aspect of the human situation which is the stuff of tragedy.”[vi]

Puccini once said that his success came from putting “great sorrows in little souls.” His operas tell us that at some point in their lives, people everywhere, in all walks of life, endure the same trials: love and envy, loss and heartbreak. Finally, all that Rodolfo and Mimi, all that any of us are given, is the precious chance to love.

[i] Joseph Volpe. The Toughest Show on Earth. My Rise and reign at the Metropolitan Opera. (New York: Vintage Books, 2007).

[ii] Review of Charles Michener in the December 28, 1981 issue of Newsweek
“A Triumphant ‘Bohème’”
[iii] Franco Zeffirelli. Zeffirelli. The Autobiography. London: Arrow Books, 1987, p.320.

[iv] Giulio Gatti-Casazza. Memories of the Opera. (London: John Calder, 1977), p. 68-69.

[v] M Scammell. Koestler: The Indispensable Intellectual London: Faber and Faber, 2009.

[vi] Barnes. The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995

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