The Metropolitan Opera Live in HD: La Bohème at Paddo’s Chauvel Cinema

Conductor Nicola Luisotti; Production Franco Zeffirelli; Angela Gheorghiu, Ainhoa Arteta, Ramón Vargas, Ludovic Tézier, Quinn Kelsey, Oren Gradus, Paul Plishka

Despite our ill-health, mr tog and I managed to drag ourselves to pick up our tickets (booked weeks ago) and joined a full cinema to see a high-definition screening of a performance in New York on the Chauvel’s silver screen. It was glorious: not quite like being there, but the next best thing definitely. (Apparently the live recording was done on April 5 – it’s meant to be simulcast, but obviously that was not the case today at the Chauvel). PS extra screening sessions have been added for the end of this month.

The Met introduced this Live in HD outreach for their 2006-07 season, but not to as many countries as now. This (almost finished) 2007-08 season was the first time The Met Live in HD was available through Australian cinemas. I only learnt about it by chance a few months ago, and as April is our anniversary month and Puccini is mr tog’s favourite composer, La Bohème seemed like the perfect sentimental date to lead up to our anniversary.

The production was astonishingly lavish, a revival of Franco Zeffirelli’s classic staging of La Bohème first seen in 1981. The sets are minutely detailed, especially for the Latin Quarter in Act II (the crowd of chorus and extras for which has to be seen to be truly believed, and which is generally acknowledged as one of the most spectacular in the Met’s repertoire ) and give a sense of realism to this production’s Paris which I’ve never quite felt in other productions I’ve seen.

Photo © Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Between acts the camera took us backstage and we got to see the set-changes happening behind the curtain, along with interviews with cast and crew done by the relentlessly perky American opera singer Renée Fleming (she at least told a nice self-deprecating anecdote about first singing Mimi and doing such a Method job on the coughing fits that she couldn’t stop coughing once Mimi had died on stage – oops).

I was a little disappointed at first in Angela Gheorghiu’s top register compared to the other singers’ voices – it seemed a touch metallic and brittle on the coloratura notes. Renée Fleming’s spoken introductions and interview questions also seemed harsh and discordant, almost a suppressed yell. But something happened to the sound at the first interval, and after that everything sounded much more balanced and mellow. Other reviews online of the performance say nothing about harsh top-notes, so presumably it was a minor technical glitch only in our cinema (also, maybe just me – I’m especially sensitive to slight imperfections at high pitch – mr tog didn’t really notice any flaws in Gheorghiu’s voice, although he did think Fleming’s sounded harsh at first).

Once the sound was sorted out I could truly enjoy Gheorghiu’s performance as Mimi, especially as the close-up cameras allow one to see details of the acting and costumes that one would be unable to see from the actual opera-house seats, so that one could fully appreciate that for once Mimi was portrayed more as a soubrette with added depth than as a simple ingenue: sweet-hearted but also playful and streetwise. (Georghiu’s chest voice is extraordinary, by the way: beautifully balanced between tone, volume and sustaining the note, and never overdone.)

Ramón Vargas as Rodolfo was superb. A gloriously sweet golden voice, and sincerely convincing as the sentimental lover. The warmth of his voice perfectly balanced the precise clarity of Georghiu’s in their duets, and soared beautifully in his solo moments. He was simply a joy to watch and hear.

The other singers were not as well known, apart from the veteran Paul Plishka, who played Benoit and Alcindoro essentially, as another review put it, “playing Paul Plishka”. Still, he’s always fun to watch and he brings great character to his singing. Ludovic Tézier made a most appealing and sympathetic Marcello, while the two other male bohemians (Quinn Kelsey as the musician and Oren Gradus as the philosopher) radiated the essential bonhomie. Ainhoa Arteta was a truly fabulous Musetta: this production allowed Musetta to appear less of a stereotypical gold-digger than she is often portrayed, and it suited her. Arteta has a statuesque quality which also gave Musetta more gravitas than usual, and her voice is strong, rich and clear.

A final shout-out for the conductor, Nicola Luisotti. Fleming interviewed him just as he was heading out for the final Act, and the depth of his passion and respect for the music and the opera theatre just shone through. He also has dangerously charming twinkly eyes and a mischievous grin – I’m actually hesitant to google for what I’m sure are humungous fan clubs. The Met orchestra were, as usual, superb, with perhaps more fresh energy for this staple of their repertoire than many other conductors could have elicited.

I can hardly wait for the next in the series: Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment with Natalie Dessay. It’s a co-production between the Met and Covent Garden, and is apparently an absolute cracker.

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5 replies

  1. I guess the Met never did get around to doing a screening of this. It would have been a hoot to see.
    TimT’s last blog post..A country town is like picking your nose: discuss

  2. Cheers, Tim! What a fabulous night that must have been for those who, as the reviewer says, get as much enjoyment watching the unfolding of a fiasco as they get from watching a perfect production.

  3. Sounds like a fun evening (because you are a friend, I pass over aspersions cast on Renee Fleming). Personally, although I have not seen/heard the mad Georghiu in person, I am seriously not a fan of her voice from what I have heard, and I was happy enough to miss her. Then again, I wasn’t in love with the voice of her replacement, as everyone else seemed to be, either. Might be my Mimi issues.
    MatildaZQ’s last blog post..A Different Kind of Funneh: Mary Gauthier and Cowboy Junkies at OTSFM

  4. Perhaps I didn’t adequately clarify that any aspersions on Fleming’s spoken voice were eventually deduced by me to be the fault of the sound system. The same tweaks which mellowed the metallic tone of Georghiu’s initial top-register also sorted out the harsh sound of Fleming’s TV mic presentation voice – I suspect that the volume was initially set way too high for a start (and perhaps she simply isn’t all that used to working with a microphone?). I stand by my description of her presenting/interviewing persona as relentlessly perky, though from your reaction I presume that is not a defining feature of her singing roles. All I can say is that I’m very glad to hear it! (I was actually very surprised to realise who she was, because she seemed so different as a presenter from the occasional broadcast performance of hers that I have seen.)
    I like your story about Georghiu’s sacking from the production you saw. I knew she had a diva reputation, definitely. From the performance I saw though, I completely see why she keeps getting work. Her acting is superior, especially as I said above in managing to make Mimi not the dishrag you so rightfully despise in general. And for someone with such a diva reputation to have such vocal restraint and precision in her technique is a rather fascinating dichotomy.

  5. P.S. Georghiu and Arteta both used too much vibrato for mr tog’s taste (although this too was less overbearing once the sound system was tamed). Then again, just about all modern sopranos use too much vibrato for mr tog’s taste: he’s a Dame Kiri fan, through and through. We were impressed with the snippet we heard of Anna Nebetko however – she seems to use vibrato rather less than many others.

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