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.