Metropolitan Opera Review 2014-15 - La Boheme - Sonya Yoncheva, Francesco DeMuro & Cast Show How Powerful Great Chemistry Can Be
Cancellation is something that all live theater must accommodate to.
But no art organization is more subjected to it than an opera company. Due to the nature of the art form and its vocal demands, singers could be forced in and out of a show based on health and other circumstances. In the case of the Metropolitan Opera's current "La Boheme," the cancellation drama has actually been an extensive saga.
Soprano Kristine Opolais was originally slated to sing the lead role of Mimi for the November run of the work. But when soprano Anna Netrebko cancelled her "Manon Lescaut" performances in Munich, Opolais took over thus leaving the "Boheme" slot open. At that point, Sonya Yoncheva was brought in to take over the run. She had already been brought in to replace Marina Poplavskaya in a January run of "La Traviata."
But the replacement and cancellation situation did not end there. Ramon Vargas was the tenor scheduled to sing the run with Yoncheva, but illness kept him out of the opening performances, which were sung by Bryan Hymel. Then, Charles Castronovo was brought in to sing the ensuing performances in place of Vargas, but he fell ill prior to Monday's presentation. As a result, the company scrambled to find someone who could take over on such short notice. Fortunately, the company had someone in Francesco DeMuro, who was originally slated to make his Met debut alongside Yoncheva in "La Traviata."
Their chemistry was evident throughout the night as the ill-fated lovers. There was tenderness in their exchanges and DeMuro, who had almost no rehearsal time, was attuned to every one of Yoncheva's gestures. When she rejected him fully in the opening act, he was quick to find a new means of flirting with her. Their near-kiss during the famed love duet was full of tension and her decision to break it off at the last section worked beautifully. And the final act was heart-wrenching as the two clung to one another with all their might. It felt as if the two lovers had lengthy history together that they were hoping to extend against all odds.
DeMuro's night did not get off to the most assured of nights. His voice sounded a bit thin under Puccini's thick orchestration and there was a wobble that seemed to hint at nerves. But those moments of tension were quickly done away with as the tenor grew into the role, the house and the music. He just got better and better as the night went on. His ability to blend in with his colleagues onstage in all manners made it impossible to believe that this singer had barely any time to rehearse. Many singers have struggled to adjust to Zefirrelli's astronomic set and often opt for parking and barking. Not Demuro. He was constantly living and breathing in the environment, bringing in his own subtle touches to enliven. Take his initial reactions to Mimi. He walks about the room, but prior to his big aria "Che gelida manina," he constantly glanced over at Mimi's hand on the floor, almost as if he was having the internal "Should I?" battle. Most times, Rodolfoes just go for it, but there was a hesitance to DeMuro that added to the character's inner world.
His tenor is not the most voluminous of voices, but he more than makes up for it with its rich textures and true squillo. The upper range is healthy and assured and he sings with elegance throughout. His "Che gelida manina" was a series of ardent phrases, each containing a fascinating vibrancy. The climactic high C was tremendous in its execution. He was at his best in the third act as he bemoaned his beloved's ill-state ("Mimi e tanto malata!"). He placed some rather violent accents on some phrases, adding a level of desperation to his singing and he was constantly singing to his greatest limits. It was visceral and powerful. This, of course, was nothing compared to the pain and suffering in his singing during the tragic final act. As he looked on at the dying Mimi, it was clear that he had no hope. This was a Rodolfo that saw the end as near and was simply trying to ignore it as best as he could. His final cries of "Mimi, Mimi" should have brought some degree of perspiration to every audience member in the house.
Yoncheva was just as wondrous as the tragic heroine. And make no mistake -- her Mimi was more of a heroine that one is accustomed to. From the onset, Yoncheva gave her a true physical portrayal full of frailty and pain. Her walk was slow and her movement suggested a woman starting to break down. But she was no simple pushover. She rejected Rodolfo's initial advances before slowly giving into his charms. Unlike many Mimi's in this production, she did not sit at the start of "Che Gelida Manina" but took some time to let him woe her. Even if Rodolfo and Mimi still wind up falling in love by the end of the act, Yoncheva's characterization made the progression palpable and believable for the viewer. In the second act, she made a nice change to the staging by not following Colline, Schaunard, Musetta and Marcelo to watch the parade. Instead, she got into one of her coughing bouts and stayed inside the Café Momus. Despite the fanfare outside, this moment really brought home just how powerful her presence as Mimi was. This writer's eyes were fixed on her struggle to retain physical composure and significantly dampened the mood amidst the bombast. It reminded the viewer that despite the lavish qualities and cheer of act 2, this opera was still a tragedy full of pain and suffering.
The physicality was all the more present in the final two acts and Yoncheva was completely immersed in her declining health. By the time she arrived in the final act, she was a pale ghost that could barely move. The viewer could feel every struggle for movement, making for a truly potent experience.
Yoncheva's soprano is rough, but massive in volume and potent in emotional expression. Her opening aria "Mi chiamano Mimi" had coquettish qualities and delicacy in its phrasing as she introduced herself. But when the glorious "ma quando vien lo sgelo" section came, she stood up and sang with all of her resources. There was yearning and desperation that expressed the loneliness, despair and Mimi's own understanding of her tragic circumstances. From that moment forward the viewer suffered with her Mimi. In the heart-gutting duet with Marcelo at the start of act three, Yoncheva somehow found even more vocal resources to express her torment despair. "Visceral" is not even enough to articulate just how unbearable the emotions she managed to bring to the listener. Her "Donde Lieto usci" was more subdued in its rendition, but it imparted a great breadth of nostalgia. And the ensuing quartet "Dunque e proprio finita!" had her blending wondrously with DeMuro.
She sang with a similarly hard edge in Act Four, but her final phrases were thinner and more jagged in their execution, perfectly showcasing Mimi's final utterances. Her performance in "Boheme" was wondrous, but it leaves one highly anticipating her forthcoming "Traviata." And the anticipation grows tenfold when one considers her tremendous chemistry with DeMuro with no rehearsal in "Boheme."
The rest of the cast was just as brilliant. This writer has seen countless "Boheme" performances over the years and can assertively state that David Bizic is easily one of the best Marcello's at the Met in recent time. His baritone is weighty, massive and full of elegance. Every single phrase was sung with confidence, poise and expression. His acting was also a huge factor. Often times "Boheme" revivals feel routine, mainly because the supporting cast feels like it is going through the motions. In the case of Bizic, every moment on stage was full of reality. His groping Benoit in the first act was a comic touch that few other baritones have attempted. His snappy repartee with Rodolfo and their suspicious glances at the start of the fourth act really brought the relationship to life.
Alession Arduini and Matthew Rose were also excellent as Schaunard and Colline, respectively. The two were a tremendous joy to watch, but were also a major reason why the fourth act tragedy was so touching. It is often hard to remember that this is not just a tragedy of lost love for Rodolfo and Mimi. When the other characters have such real relationships with one another onstage in the Café Momus, the viewer is reminded that this opera is also about friendship and the loss of it. Thus Colline's famous aria "Vecchia zimarra" had greater profundity. Rose sang the passage with his fascinating bass which resounded through the theater in a way few other singers could do in this aria. It was moment of unreal pathos.
John Del Carlo was hilarious in his double role as Benoit and Alcindoro.
The only cast member that was not on the same level as her peers was Greek soprano Myrto Papatanasiu. As noted in a previous review, her high range is shrill and wobbly, making for an uncomfortable listening experience; it remained a dark cloud on her overall performance. That said, she is a fantastic actress and her singing in the middle range was strong in Act Four.
Conductor Riccardo Frizza was terrific in the pit. He pushed the orchestra to its full capacity and drew lush sounds in throughout. He had no qualms about pushing Puccini's massive emotional gestures to their limits, even at the risks of covering his singers. Fortunately, this seemed to push his singers to the next level and they always rose to the occasion.
Overall, this "Boheme" showed just how powerful this opera and production could still be despite its regular presentation. Yoncheva and DeMuro are two stars in the making while the remaining cast members all bring brilliant artistic qualities to make this a complete performance.