Vittorio Grigolo as Rodolfo and Kristine Opolais as Mimi in the Metropolitan Opera's Live in HD broadcast of Puccini's "La Boheme" on April 5, 2014.



CONDUCTOR: Stefano Ranzani

CAST: Kristine Opolais, Vittorio Grigolo, Susanna Phillips, Massimo Cavelletti, Patrick Carfizzi, Oren Gradus


RUNNING TIME: 175 minutes

RATING: 4 stars (out of 5)

Paul Boekkooi

Cast changes in opera productions can be a nightmarish curse. In the case of the Metropolitan Opera New York’s 2014 staging of La Bohème, it made history.

Never before in the house’s existence of more than a century did it all happen like a couple of weeks ago.

The Romanian soprano Anita Hartig fell ill on the Saturday morning, some six hours prior to the scheduled matinée performance of the opera, which was to be filmed on HD. Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, phoned the Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais to ask if she would be able to stand in for Hartig, who sang the role of Mimi.

Initially he received a negative reply from Opolais, who on Friday night made her house debut in the title role of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.

However, some minutes later she changed her mind and according to reports said to herself: “Why not?” At lightning speed, stage and musical rehearsals had to be planned, costumes altered and make-up artists put in place.

Opolais became the first diva in the Met’s history who had to die twice on stage in two different roles within a span of 18 hours.

Having sung Mimi before at, among others, the Vienna State Opera, naturally helped.

Although not a total triumph, she fitted in well with the cast, found the chemistry needed to portray the often fragile Mimi and did just that with a lyricism which strengthened the vocal effectiveness without ever losing Mimi’s simple charm and youthfulness of spirit. Her pure-toned voice was also more than ample in climaxes.

Dramatically, she just slightly falls short of creating total heartbreak on her deathbed.

The Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo, her Rudolfo, has a richly distinctive voice, clear and often thrilling, while his style is ardent and genial.

He and Opolais become lovers one can believe in, but this poet is somewhat reserved in showing his innermost feelings. One did not experience enough signs of remorse, or inner conflict during and after he and Mimi were apart.

La Bohème is in many ways foremost an ensemble opera. The other Bohemians – Massimo Cavalletti (Marcello), Patrick Carfizzi (Schaunard) and Oren Gradus (Colline) – were sparkling.

Team-work among them has the combination of precision and the apparent spontaneity which betokens thorough and inspired rehearsals. It was only Gradus who seemed a bit drab in a couple of his scenes.

The still young Susanna Phillips has an overflowing stage presence as Musetta. This is combined with a larynx that undeniably has star quality written all over it.

She delivers a nicely teasing Waltz Song, capped with brilliantly executed top notes.

In the Latin Quarter scene of Act 2 with 106 crowd extras, she bubbles over with wit and an appealing but appropriate old-fashioned sexual allure.

After some 35 years, the internationally renowned Franco Zeffirelli production and set designs still cast their magic spell. This is one major reason to see this staging, because this fine director with his eye for detail, always and especially in La Bohème, runs the theatre of the heart’s desire: beautiful, rich, meticulous and always true to the score as well as the book. J Knighten Smit let Zeffirelli’s legend dominate his work with both the individuals and masses.

As always, every member of the Met Opera Chorus becomes a character on stage.

The orchestral playing under Stefano Ranzani carries a vividness and assurance that never lapses into mere routine. The way they mirrored every human emotion was often enlightening – exactly as Puccini meant a conductor to interpret and handle this partly exhilarating and partly reflective score.

Screening until May 8 at all Cinema Nouveau and selected Ster-Kinekor theatres.