'La Boheme' is not just an opera masterpiece, a very close second to 'Tosca' as far as Puccini operas go, but an all-time favourite too. The music is some of Puccini's best and most beautiful, the story is entertaining and poignant and the ending is one of the most heart-rending endings in all of opera. The ending to Poulenc's 'Dialogues des Carmelites' is the only ending to an opera that affects me more.
As was said with the 2014 production, also wonderful, this 2018 production promised a fair bit, especially that it was a revival of the classic Franco Zeffirelli production, and delivers, it is wonderful in almost every single way. Of the 2017-2018 Live in HD productions so far, 'La Boheme' is one of the best, in a season that got stronger and stronger with each production, it dipped a little with 'The Exterminating Angel' (a very good production but an acquired taste opera) but so far it's been great.
There is little to criticise here. Act 3 at times could have been more intimate, attempts to make the staging more "interesting" distracted slightly from the emotion, which resonates much more when kept simple. Otherwise, can't complain. Some may find Paul Plishka very dry and rough vocally, he is well past his best definitely (then again this is another brought out of retirement performance), but this is more than compensated by sly and characterful musicality and phrasing and he is a tremendously fun presence onstage, experience shows.
Visually, this 'La Boheme' is very handsome to look at with an opulent Act 2, a hauntingly lit Act 3 and the Acts 1 and Act 4 garret setting as beautifully mounted as it is authentically cold(as it should). The costumes suit the characters' personalities and they look Bohemian at least with tasteful colours and the lighting is neither too bright or too dark. It doesn't just look striking but there is a real eye for detail, then again it is Zeffirelli so that shouldn't come too much of a surprise. The production may be 30+ years old but it doesn't show its age at all, the spirit of the opera remains but it feels fresh too with the most entertaining Act 2 I've seen in a while. The staging is rarely too busy, nor is it ever static(even in the chorus, there have been a fair amount of productions seen with badly directed choruses), the scenes between the Bohemians are a joy especially the end of Act 2 and there is plenty of emotional wallop when needed. The ending does not disappoint, was expecting to cry buckets and that happened.
Musically, it's outstanding. The orchestra play fabulously, the tone in the strings especially is full of warmth and it's alive to nuances and lyrical style. The chorus are very animated, they are only present in Act 2 and the beginning of Act 3- with a lot to do though in the former- but they are committed in the drama. As ever they sound great, very well rehearsed and well-balanced. Marco Armiliato's conducting is is stylish and colourful, he brings out the poetry of the score while keeping the momentum tempo wise. On top of that he is sympathetic to the drama and the singers while not making it dull.
Sonya Yoncheva is a very moving Mimi, any reservations about her not looking frail or consumptive enough (a big ask) are obliterated with her beautiful voice, wide range of musicianship and tone colour, sensitive phrasing and very sincere and poignant acting, a large part of Act 4's emotional impact is her. Michael Fabiano matches her with ease, is a very good match, showing clear chemistry with Yoncheva and a bright ringing tenor voice. He is youthful, sympathetic and ardent dramatically and is far more musical than Vittorio Grigolo in the 2014 production.
Impressing further is Lucas Meacham as Marcello. He is very amusing in his rapport with the rest of the Bohemians and his love-hate relationship with Susanna Phillips' Musetta, yet he shows a great loyal friendship to Rodolfo as well. Vocally he is robust and warm. Even more impressive is Phillips in something of a signature role for her, she sounded completely natural as Musetta and she is very funny and sexy while her compassionate side later on is most touching.
All the other roles are well cast, Matthew Rose particularly is a very noble Colline ("Vecchia Zimarra", where he sings to and of his coat before selling it, is beautifully sung and it feels like a gentle goodbye aria).
Overall, wonderful. 9/10 Bethany Cox
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