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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
La Bohème (1895)
Angela Gheorghiu (soprano) – Mimi
Ramón Vargas (tenor) – Rodolfo
Ludovic Tézier (baritone) – Marcello
Ainhoa Arteta (mezzo) – Musetta
Oren Gradus (baritone) – Colline
Quinn Kelsey (bass) – Schaunard
Paul Plishka (baritone) – Benoit and Alcindoro
Franco Zeffirelli (Production)
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Children’s Chorus/Nicola Luisotti
rec. live, Metropolitan Opera, New York, 5 April 2008
Originally transmitted live to cinemas
Region Code: 0; Aspect Ratio 16:9; LPCM Stereo; DTS 5.1 Surround
Experience Classicsonline

Zeffirelli’s classic Met Bohème gets its second outing on DVD with great performances, clear picture quality and outstanding sound. It provides all anyone could want from an opera DVD, so long as you’re happy with traditional ultra-realism.

In many ways this DVD is more about the director than any of the musicians. In her introduction our host, Renée Fleming, informs us that this is the most-revived of all the Met’s productions - nearly 350 performances. The DVD includes a short bonus film showcasing Zeffirelli’s Met productions, with brief footage of Met General Manager Peter Gelb presenting him with a special honour to celebrate his career with the House. They also unveil a plaque to commemorate him: tellingly, it’s positioned in the wings of the stage so that only performers can see it, a comment on how popular Zeffirelli’s work is with artists as well as audiences. 

It’s easy to see why. This being the Met, Zeffirelli has produced an ultra-traditional naturalistic spectacular for this big hit. You will find nothing here to challenge you intellectually or usurp any expectations you already had, but who said opera was supposed to do that anyway? 

Zeffirelli’s sets are truly remarkable. Act 1 shows the garret with the fourth wall removed so that we can see into the room as Marcello paints and they all freeze. The Parisian rooftops are gorgeous, as are the well-observed costumes, always appropriate. Zeffirelli shows insightful attention to detail too, however, such as the bust of Napoleon on the shelf of the garret, suggesting that these artists are next in a long line of great artists who took inspiration from the Emperor. There are also anatomical diagrams on the wall, hinting at a link with a different academic discipline which has perhaps gone wrong. The acting is well-choreographed too, and everyone has good fun in the scene with Benoit, hammed up delightfully by Paul Plishka. The scene for Act 2 is gargantuan and when the curtain rises the effect is quite jaw-dropping: the audience respond with a ripple of applause. As viewers we are treated to a view behind the curtain as the scene changes so we see some of the tricks of the trade, a genuinely fascinating insight for those interested in stagecraft. As well as a realistic set and a cast of thousands, this act features a donkey and a horse, though not at the same time. The snow-bound set for Act 3 is also very atmospheric, though two stubborn snow-flakes get stuck on the camera lenses, providing something of a distraction for five minutes of the act. Zeffirelli is very good at managing space too: the garret of the first act has a little balcony on which Rodolfo stands to watch the chimneys and from which he calls down to his friends at the end of the act, and the director solves the problem of focus in Act 2 by putting the action on two levels with the restaurant at the bottom towards the front of the stage. Zeffirelli doesn’t just rely on spectacle, however: he provides insights into the characters too. We see a rakish Rodolfo straighten his hair when he hears that it is a woman at his door, and Mimi blows her candle out intentionally in Act 1, revealing her as more of an active flirt than some interpretations would allow. 

The singing is of an excellent standard throughout. Angela Gheorghiu has made Mimi one of her signature roles, and she revels in the part here; apparently this is one of her favourite productions. She is innocent and simple in Mi chiamano Mimi and ecstatic for O Soave Fanciulla. She is also affecting and sympathetic at the onset of her illness in Act 3, though she looks and sounds rather too healthy in the final act! Ramón Vargas is in great voice too with a vibrant ping to the top register, so it’s disappointing that he sings Che gelida manina transposed down, all the more so when he manages the (unwritten) top note at the end of the act. Both lovers are fantastic in the last act, though, and perhaps the most moving moment is when they have been left alone and Mimi, summoning up her last strength, holds Rodolfo in a passionate embrace as the strings swell as reprise of their love theme. So understated, but so effective. Arteta’s voice provides a good contrast to Gheorghiu’s: she wears her flirtatiousness brazenly, but her reunion with Marcello is genuinely moving at the end of Act 2. Similarly their fight at the end of Act 3 is waspish, and an appropriate contrast to the moving scene being played out on the other side of the stage. The other Bohemians sing and act well, and the raincoat aria, delivered in the privacy of the little balcony, is strong and characterful. 

The thing that really makes this DVD stand out from the production’s previous incarnation, however, is not just the performances but the outstanding sound. It’s well balanced in crystal-clear DTS 5.1 and it spread through my surround-sound speakers brilliantly, creating an ideal sense of atmosphere and bringing the pictures to life far more dynamically than stereo could. I’d go so far as to say that the sound here is as good as I’ve heard on any opera DVD, and that’s a credit to the production staff. 

One special mention for the ending: I’ve never really been convinced with the ending Puccini chooses, with the others keeping Mimi’s death from Rodolfo as he speaks, and then shouts to them. Here, however, it is done simply and directly: Vargas is delicate and gentle rather than blustering while his friends step back to give him space, and the opera moves to a moving and poignant conclusion. 

As well all these cinema relays, the extras include cast interviews and a chat with the Met’s technical director. Here, however, they are embedded into the timing rather than banded separately, with the exception of the Zeffirelli film. The cast interviews are just daft and add nothing, though it’s interesting hearing how the technical team get the massive Act 2 set into place. 

So if you like what Zeffirelli does and you’re a fan of good singing then this is probably about as good as armchair opera gets. Buy it for the fantastic sound and to wallow in the classic production styles of the old school.

Simon Thompson


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