REVIEW: Bulgarian Soprano Sonya Yoncheva Debuts Memorable Mimì in Middling 'La Bohème' at Metropolitan Opera
Recently, the Metropolitan Opera has made headlines for all the wrong reasons. Be it pre-season labor disputes with the man Peter Gelb, opening night unrest care of Leon Klinghoffer and Rudy Guiliani or just a simple technical glitch during the broadcast at your local cinema, what's been lost as of late is a lot. Such controversies, however inflated, do obscure the institution's real mission statement. First and perhaps foremost, is the fact that the Met remains this country's most enduring repertory company. For every Klinghoffer or Iolanta premiere in 2014-15, there are as many, if not more, reheated Aidas and prefab Meistersingers. Come the holidays, highly touted new productions of Le Nozze di Figaro and The Merry Widow will run alongside evergreen faire like Il Barbiere di Siviglia and Hansel and Gretel. And, let's be honest, it is the latter, lighter of these programming options that the casual opera-goer is wont to experience there at Lincoln Center. In fact, Mr. Gelb is banking on it.
So, while we wait to see who wins the naming rights to Avery Fisher Hall right next door, the world's most popular opera performed at the greatest opera house in North America---via its most loved incarnation (Franco Zeffirelli, 1981)---should, theoretically, be enough. Well, at least worth the price of admission. Indubitably, because this was La Bohème at the Metropolitan Opera, indeed, it was. Unlike Ruggero Leoncavallo's take on Henri Muger's bohemian friends, Puccini's four-acter has been staged by the Met in all but nine seasons since its 1900 tour debut in Los Angeles, including a Ripken-esque stretch of 59 consecutive ones. Bohème is the very definition of a warhorse.
Of course, every thoroughbred needs a day off. With Kristine Opolais in Munich for Anna Netrebko's Manon, the only true star left on Friday's playbill was Mexican tenor Ramón Vargas. Alas, he called in sick, as well. Bryan Hymel, who sang Rodolfo for this revival's premiere in September, dazzled nonetheless with "Che gelida manina" in Act I, more attuned to the lovelorn (not to mention a more natural singing-actor) than Jean-François Borras might have done with the shared gig. Likewise, Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva more than held her own in her key scene aria "Sì, mi chiamano Mimì." For skeptics weary of how this new mother's lines would compare to Opolais' or Angela Gheorghiu's on alternate evenings in her debut as the consumptive neighbor-with-a-candle, be not afraid: Yoncheva duly deserved both the ovation and rose bouquet she received.
As important as the garrets that bookend the tragic tale are, any Bohème---Muger's original, Baz Luhrmann's cobbling, Jonathan Larson's Rent--lives or dies by the Café Momus' mise-en-scène. Again, because the Met has mounted the A.V. orgy that is Puccini's Latin Quarter hundreds of time a priori, the spectacle was so grand---donkeys, horses, a stilt-walker, oh my!---to make the most bourgeois of cynics smile. (Know, too, that unlike at the Big Apple Circus set up in Damrosch Park, every beast of burden at the Met is humanely supervised by All-Tame Animals, Inc.) As for the musical couple at the heart here, it was Myrtò Papatanasiu's beguiling Musetta and her siren song of waltz, "Quando m'en vo," that David Bizic's Marcello, the Met newcomer and indigent aesthete, could not resist. With Riccardo Frizza's baton ably leading the orchestra down in the pit, Gregory Buchalter conducting the brass and drum corp on stage, stiffing John Del Carlo's sturdy Alcindoro with the bill could not have been any better choreographed. Act II was precisely what you want, and what we so often get, live (or via closed-circuit) from the Metropolitan Opera.
A bit less convincing, though no less beautifully rendered by the good folks of IATSE Local 1, was Act III's Barrière d'Enfer toll on the outskirts of Paris. Several awkward blocking choices in J. Knighten Smit's staging necessitated projection over nuance, typified in the final quartet, "Addio dolce svegliare alla mattina," where the pairs of lovers need to communicate most---to each other and the house. Amid all the infighting, Maestro Frizza's wind section could be forgiven of balance issues, but intonation in the strings, especially for some of the vocal guide notes, cannot. Ultimately, the more seasoned duo of Hymel/Yoncheva's Rodolfo and Mimì played better than Papatanasiu/Bizic's Musetta and Marcello, but even their curtain-closing kiss felt more de rigueur than demonstrative. Also, there was hardly any need, at least conceptually, for a second intermission after just 30 minutes removed from the first.
Back at the garret, the opening of Act IV found English bass Matthew Rose (Colline the philosopher) and Italian baritone Alessio Arduini (the musician Schaunard, in his U.S. debut) at their dancing, dueling best. With less capable Bohème casts, all too often, Colline and Schaunard seem to get the shaft, but both Rose and Arduini proved hard to ignore once on stage. The narrative's final act, though, is all about the death of Mimì, and to her credit, Sonya Yoncheva pulled off her own ending with the whimper that character so demurely needs. Unlike Verdi's grand heroine Violetta, no, Mimì does not go out with a bang; actually, Puccini goes to great, albeit understated lengths to denote her demise. A single cymbal strikes quadruple piano, and lunga pausa, Mimì's la vie Bohème is over. As for Yoncheva, herself, hold your horses. She'll be back in January for yet another repertoire round at the Metropolitan Opera...as Violetta in La Traviata.