The tenderest traps: La bohème MET 2022.V.24 (Lontano lontano)
What are Bohème's performance pitfalls
& how were they faced by the Met weeknight team of Buratto, Kurzak, Polenzani, Kelsey, Testé, Kim?
Marcello • Quinn Kelsey
Rodolfo • Matthew Polenzani
Colline • Nicolas Testé
Schaunard • Iurii Samoilov [debut run]
Benoit • Donald Maxwell
Mimì • Eleonora Buratto
Parpignol • Gregory Warren
Alcindoro • Donald Maxwell
Musetta • Aleksandra Kurzak
Sergente dei dognanieri • Jonathan Scott
Doganiere • Ned Hanlon
direttore • Eun Sun Kim
Un riepilogo al volo, «recapping on the fly» this season's penultimate Bohème As Heard Up in the Gods:
In standard repertory opera, familiarity breeds slovenliness, and one of the titles that most suffers is this Puccinian Bad Romance. Over the course of Bohème's unhalted performance history, a «menu» of pre-determined performance options has developed—some worse than others. For all their professed amore di Puccini, Bohème performers commonly employ stratagems that clash with what the maestro so carefully set instead of trusting the material's power.
Considering the challenges within the principal roles:
Colline: Puccini's own markings for «Vecchia zimarra» never fail to arouse curiosity.
The tempo is listed «Allegretto moderato [!] e triste» with a metronome marking of quarter note = 63
(i.e. each beat takes a little less than a second: «Vec-chia zi-mar-ra, sen-ti»—brisker than what one usually hears in the theatre),
and in the accompaniment for the aria's initial theme, the alternating clarinets and bassoons are marked staccatissimo—often those notes are played with a little more length for tone's sake.
Yet one needn't veer to the other extreme of lugubrious grandezza; together Mo. Eun Sun Kim and Nicolas Testé achieved a «Solomonian» solution of a pace that allowed his voice to fill out each syllable and pitch, plus the desired tempo flex to highlight such important phrase corners as the high line «Passar nelle tue tasche». No hesitation in his phonation: neither throat noise nor breath stress nor muscular tension encumbered the onset of Testé's phrases whether on vowel or consonant. His is a tawny timbre that one should like to hear employed in grander characters such as—colpo di furbo!—Philippe II in French.
Schaunard: A range of factors conspire to make him come off as the weakest link in the mens' quartet.
He doesn't have an aria proper in which to impose his presence, the closest thing being his entrance gambit—frequently offered as a solo number in auditions;
because Schaunard doesn't have room to make plot-altering impact, casting personnel sometimes fill the role with a singer less experienced than the other bohemians;
such less-experienced singers are tempted to make their first entrance as «baritone soubrette whirlwind» only to fade away as the drama unfolds;
lastly there's the mistaken idea that the role is a good fit for young light baritones despite the twin evidence that not only is the role's orchestration rich—e.g. «Falso questo Re!»—but his tessitura is closer to Colline's than Marcello's!
In his Met debut run, Iurii Samoilov did not stand out for better or worse.
Marcello: As with the first solo voice heard in any opera, Marcello is (as the Italians say) in pole position to set the tone for the performance. Why did Quinn Kelsey towards the end of his opening phrase bark out «Questo Mar Rosso mi ammollisce e assidera»?
As the night wore on, one was reminded just how much Marcello lives or dies by the theatrical vitality of the baritone cast in the role. Vocal solidity is not enough: his character calls for variety of linguistic inflection, responsiveness to dramatic stimuli, actively partnering the other characters at every moment. Kelsey was merely serviceable, disappointing expectations of luxury casting.
(Elsewhere in these pages can be found previous impressions of his work
Musetta: Performers can easily make render this character antipaticissima by surrendering to the joint temptations of playing up her stridency and communicating built-in expectations for adoration—character traits we don't trust in the opera house because we don't trust them in real life. Following that approach, Musettas end up painting themselves into a corner: when the final act hits and we the audience are faced with her melting heart in Mimì's final hour, how can we believe such a volte-face?
Aleksandra Kurzak swept away all such challenges in a disarming portrayal that toed the fine line between enjoying and exaggerating her ongoing baiting of Marcello. Such character intentions would have come to naught were they not realized through her secure vocalità: Kurzak has extended from her coloratura origins into the deep end of the repertorione—Tosca (role debut this past March at the Met!), la Valois (2019 Bastille), Santuzza (2020 Palermo; originally also scheduled for l'Arena di Verona)— without acquiring the battle scars familiar from other piquantly lyrical sopranos driven by temperament. (Ma quanti nomi…!)
Kurzak sings with her voice and her technique, and precious both are: a ruby port timbre securely on the breath—no hesitation in her phonation!—which she doesn't grip or grouch in order to beef up her warm middle register, extending in this role to a «melt-in-mouth» seven-second high B diminuendo climaxing Musetta's valzer solo turn.
Mimì: Legion are the specious temptations to characterize this romantic humble heroine as la povera piccina condannata straight from the beginning. Eleonora Buratto kept matters simple, disdaining exaggeration in favor of singing with her wonted care and personal warmth. That said, having enjoyed her Met Butterfly some weeks back, one is eager to witness her in more complicated roles such as the Valois with which she makes her company return this autumn.
Score specification: in the final act outburst «Sei il mio amor e tutta la mia vita», Buratto and the orchestra performed that climactic note as a half-note (in accord with the piano/vocal score) instead of a quarter-note (as in the orchestral score).
Rodolfo: Revisiting this personaggio In Person On Site In Real Time leads one to the suspicion, finally sparked after a lifetime's familiarity with him, that Rodolfo's always been two opposing characters in the same man. Acts I and IV launch off with a sophomoric tomfoolery that tenors usually find more congenial than the greater challenges within the core of the opera: expressing Rodolfo's vulnerability in the wake of this coup de foudre and his impotence in the face of the illness ravaging Mimì. (More remains to be said about male operatic performers' willingness, much less capacity, to embody vulnerability onstage.)
Matthew Polenzani doesn't shy away from expressing male vulnerability, one just wants him to Up His Game: to admit a broader range of expressive impulses and follow them far in gesture and tone. He sang and acted that he cared for Mimì without achieving the poignant nuance of needing her. Vocally conscientious, Polenzani may not be a singer who lives by moment-to-moment inflections but at least here he resisted his occasional urge to rant. A great asset is his top register at full voice, markedly more clarion than the rest of his instrument; something less satisfying is his achievement of piani and mezzevoci by slenderizing his sound instead of insisting upon the full breadth of tone, resulting in a fall-off of vocal dimension and color.
In the «manina» Polenzani unleashed a poised top C lasting three seconds and gliding superbly connected into the following B-flat and ensuing phrase ending. At act's end he unwisely co-opted Mimì's line to a concluding C that proved under-pitch and recalcitrant, compelling Buratto to abbreviate her quite good and in-tune one for collegiality's sake.
(See the bottom of the page for the appropriately poetic resolution Puccini actually did write.)
Finally, it is incumbent upon The Power At The Podium to keep ears, brain, heart, and pulse in flexible yet certain balance: a particularly heavy responsibility in this most familiar of scores. Excessive propulsion in the sportive episodes makes them sound manic whereas excessive doting upon the heartfelt moments can leave an impression of aural bloat, and being a tale of early adulthood's trials-by-fire, Bohème should maintain its youthful figure.
Heard in house, Eun Sun Kim did strike balances with the singers—honoring their desires for room to expand with their needs for a steady forward pulse—and with the orchestra—allowing their narrative colors to sound clearly without blotting the cast's contributions. Instead of highlighting the variations between musical moods and episodes, she smoothly advanced her charges through them—perhaps as the Italians would say un po' spianato: a touch «levelled out». Hers was no revolutionary interpretation and it didn't need to be: Kim guided the participants who actually make the opera's sounds with enough room for their contributions, all of which under her executive pulse added up to a familiar-sounding Bohème. And that, at today's Metropolitan, is something.
(Still, couldn't she have counselled Polenzani against
Making That Choice At the End of Act I?)