JWR Articles: Film/DVD - La Bohème (Director: Franco Zeffirelli) - November 14, 2002
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La Bohème

5 5
141 min.

Puccini handled brilliantly

“Just as it makes only a slight impression on the spirit of its listeners, Puccini’s La Bohème will leave only a slight trace in the history of our opera. The composer would be wise to consider it a momentary mistake and to continue boldly on the right path.” These words from Carlo Bersezio, respected Turin critic, commenting on the 1896 première, which Toscanini conducted, prove yet again just how subjective the evaluation of art can be.

In Franco Zeffirelli’s capable hands this 1982 telecast from New York’s Metropolitan Opera series is one of the finest productions ever mounted. For it is the hands, from Mimi’s early prayer to the too-little, too-late final warmth of the muff, that permeate nearly every scene.

James Levine’s conducting hands are also much in evidence. He keeps the pace moving well but causes the brass to veer off perfect ensemble when his flighty beat becomes too unclear to fathom. The choruses fare better whether using backstage monitors or glances to the pit, bringing out the required contrast and colour from the score.

But this is Teresa Stratas’ triumph. She is both the musical and dramatic catalyst with an unforgettable combination of exquisite vocal artistry, acting and presence that always rings true: She is Mimi. Tenor José Carreras certainly looks the part of Rodolfo, but this performance suffered from a dry, thin top that was, sadly, matched by the oboe. He was unable to move together with his partner at the key points of their poignant duets, robbing them of greatness. Thankfully, he opted for the more traditional harmony instead of joining Stratas for the final top C of Act I.

Act II is a marvel. Renata Scotto steals the show (and most of the men) as the flirtatious Musetta following the “all-dressed” opening where Zeffirelli uses every inch of the stage to create the feel, look and zest of Paris on this hilarious Christmas Eve past. And, as with Rodolfo’s refreshing water drops in time with the strings’ pizzicati earlier, he demonstrates his thorough understanding of the music by arranging for the waiter’s tray to “hit the deck” in perfect sync with the cymbal crash and— later—baring Musetta’s leg in time with the chromatic return to her waltz’s theme. Marvellous!

Of Rodolfo’s roommates, Richard Stilwell’s Marcello is the most musically satisfying, although his facial expressions would benefit from greater variation—it must be hard to scowl for two hours straight. Alan Monk was an energetic Schaunard and James Morris’ “coat” aria was another testament to his legendary wide-range of tone colour and understatement.

Being staged for television, the leads, necessarily, dominated the video so that the viewer was deprived of much of the bits of business that were taking place around the principals. On the other hand, the long shots of the three magnificently lit sets, added depth and perspective that could never have been appreciated sitting in the Met: A fair trade-off and excellent use of media. Only a few out-of-focus frames marred the visual result and the balance of pit-to-stage invariably favoured the former, but we are in Zeffirelli’s debt for having used all of the elements at his disposal so creatively that this La Bohème will serve as a benchmark for years to come. JWR

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Repertoire:
La Bohème - Giacomo Puccini
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