Review: In ‘La Bohème' at the Met, the Star Is in the Pit

The text tells the story of Yannick Nzet-Sguin, the company's music director, conducting a beloved production of Puccini's perennial classic for the first time.

Review: In ‘La Bohème' at the Met, the Star Is in the Pit

The third act of Puccini’s ‘La Boheme' begins with a wintery Paris.

As the curtain opens, the harsh notes are a shock to the face. The soft, but sharp march of the harp and flute is a chilling sound, which intensifies in a muted harmony that builds up from the bottom, to the top, the woodwinds, then strings. Cellos below shiver almost inaudibly. Puccini conjures February as cold and lonely in just a few moments.

The Metropolitan Opera has performed 'La Boheme,' more than any other piece of work. Its players could perform this moment in sleep. The chords that begin Act III are rarely as well-tuned as when the company revived Franco Zeffirelli’s beloved production Friday night. Their resonance is reminiscent of the echoes bells Puccini demands shortly after.

Boheme doesn't get real rehearsals to achieve that kind of tiny refinement. In order for a costly repertory company like the Met, not all pieces can be treated equally. Some, especially the core Italian standards must be performed with little or no attention. This means that the Met tends to perform this Puccini classic at a high but not the very highest level, and with experienced but non-starry maestros.

On Friday, Yannick Nezet-Seguin, the Met's current music director, led 'La Boheme,' for the first ever, with all the energy, resources and focus that are always associated with productions directed by the artistic leader of a company.

It's been decades since this happened. James Levine has conducted "Boheme" at the Met more than 40 time, including the 1981 premiere of Zeffirelli's production. Since Levine conducted a benefit concert in 1992, a music-director of the company has not been on the podium. This is about 400 Bohemes ago.

There was a sense of polish, and vigor, in the orchestra, especially on Friday: the tanginess in the winds as the landlord of the bohemians regales them in Act 1, the delicate strings in Mimi's introduction to Rodolfo's aria. The 'Boheme,' like Nezet Seguin's 'La Traviata' was characterized by the juxtaposition of sumptuous tempo slowing and furious bouncing ahead. These extremes in speed are meant to create a feverish intensity. However, the end result is often an atmospheric dreaminess that's beautiful but unnatural.

Nezet Seguin, for instance, held the strings until the music became nostalgic amber as Rodolfo's and Marcello’s duet began. Time literally stopped. He wrote on Instagram that he was 'fulfilling a dream' by conducting this score at the Met. There was a feeling throughout of him lingering, even if it was lovingly.

Even in the chaos of Act 2, the chorus and orchestra were adroit. Christian Van Horn was the best in the cast, with his Colline sung wittily, eloquently and solidly. Davide Luciano, as Marcello, seemed to show off his large baritone at times by bellowing. Alexey Lavrov's resonant baritone often disappeared as Schaunard. Sylvia D'Eramo's Musetta had a wispy, but expressive, soprano.

Stephen Costello's restrained, calm tenor can be bland. As his voice warmed up during his Friday performance of Rodolfo, what began as coolness became more of a poignant reserve. Eleonora buratto, a soprano, was a forward-looking Mimi with muscular high notes that tended to the steely sound of Cio-Cio San in Puccini’s ‘Madama Butterfly.’

The man holding the baton was the obvious central figure in this 'Boheme.' Nowadays, the focus is on the newest productions and contemporary operas. The music director also gets the spotlight. For the sake of the company’s artistic vibrancy and health, it is important to have Nezet Seguin in the pit when titles are taken for granted.