Robert Shaw had a habit, when he was conducting a great and famous work—maybe an overly familiar work. A work prone to hackneying. “Remember,” he would tell his forces, at the final rehearsal: “There will be people in the audience who will be hearing this work for the first time. And people who will be hearing it for the last time. Make it good.”

Yes. Don’t phone it in. Give it your all.

I thought of this when the Metropolitan Opera presented La bohème, the Puccini hit, last night. The Met has been doing Bohème all season (every season?). I reviewed a performance of it last November. We are nearing the end of the season, so maybe it is “mop-up time,” as they say in the NBA, or “garbage time”: the last few minutes of a game already decided, when players from the bench go in and play.

Last night was just a meaningless Monday, in a sense. There were probably no critics in the audience (save one). But the audience got a first-rate performance of a first-rate opera (in a first-rate production, no matter how much abuse is heaped on it: Zeffirelli’s). And the cast did not consist of bench players. It included some of the brightest lights in the business.

We will begin, however, not with the cast, but with the conductor—on whom so much depends. She was (as last November) Eun-sun Kim, the music director of the San Francisco Opera. She let the score have its vitality, its charm, its pathos. She was ever alert, ever poised. This was an unusually neat account of La bohème. The orchestra was so transparent, you could practically have written down the score. At the same time, Maestra Kim was not lacking in panache.

I kept noticing attention to detail. For example, the conductor made sure to know exactly when the door would slam. And she cut off the final note of the opera exactly when the curtain was completely closed.

Was there any shakiness at all? Yes, in the Act IV duet between tenor and baritone (Rodolfo and Marcello). Coordination faltered. But this was noticeable for its exceptionality.

The Met orchestra played very well, and it was an especially good night for two principal woodwinds: Nathan Hughes, oboe, and Jessica Phillips, clarinet. What beautiful and assured contributions they made. And, in Act III, the concertmaster, Bruno Eicher, contributed some excellent sweet sadness.

Singing the principal female role—that of Mimì—was Eleonora Buratto, the Italian soprano. She has been important to the Met this season, and important to Puccini. Just recently, she was Madama Butterfly (discussed in my current “chronicle,” in the print magazine). As Mimì last night, Buratto was as expected: smart, very smart; secure, technically (not least in her intonation); aware of theatrical requirements. Also—this is not a small thing—exemplary Italian issued from her mouth. Every syllable was instantly recognizable and understandable.

Partnering Buratto as Rodolfo was Matthew Polenzani, one of the outstanding tenors of our time—one of the most versatile, too. He gave one of the best accounts of Die schöne Müllerin, the Schubert song-cycle, I have ever heard. (He did so with the pianist Kevin Murphy.) And he is hard to beat for lyric tenor roles: Ferrando, Nemorino, and the rest. How about Puccini’s Rodolfo? Too big for him? Maybe a hair. But Rodolfos come in various shapes and sizes. Polenzani’s soft singing was impossibly beautiful, as usual. And he never had a problem being heard. The high C in his aria—“la speranza!”—was impressive.

Furthermore, Polenzani was a believable, engaging Rodolfo—as when he did a check of his hair in the mirror, when a woman knocked on the door. At the end, his disbelief and his sobs were affecting.

I don’t say that the men portraying the four young bohemian buddies are young. I do say that they came off as young, which is the point.

Taking the part of Marcello was Quinn Kelsey, the baritone from Hawaii. I reviewed him in 2008, saying that he “had a wonderful Met debut as Schaunard.” That is the secondary baritone role in this opera. “This American baritone not only sings accurately, he sings with real flavor.” Earlier in the current season, he sang the title role of Rigoletto, very effectively. (My review here.)

As Marcello? Big (of voice), burnished (in sound), and full of “presence.”

Schaunard was a Ukrainian baritone, Iurii Samoilov. As Kelsey had in the role, Samoilov was making his Met debut. Based on last night, we will want to hear more from him. He owns a fine instrument. Colline was Nicolas Testé, a French bass, who intoned his brief but inspired aria with appropriate gravity and beauty.

Doing a turn as Musetta was Aleksandra Kurzak, the Polish soprano star. In Act II, she was a hoot. A skillful hoot. Was she over-the-top? Yes, but over-the-top, when it comes to Musetta, is not necessarily wrong. And, for all her shenanigans, Kurzak did not forget to sing. At the end of her aria, she effected an amazing diminuendo on her high note. And she held the note forever. Not just anyone off the street can do this.

Familiar as it is—hackneyed as it can be—you can see La bohème again. (And don’t forget the first-timer!) This opera is a masterpiece. A good performance, with a good production, leaves no doubt. Bohème is a tragedy, yes. But Act II? I don’t know whether there is a more enjoyable, more grin-making twenty minutes in opera. Last night, when the march played at the end of the act, the waiters of the Café Momus positively grooved to the music, waving their napkins in the air. Not to grin was well-nigh impossible.

The public is not always right (heaven knows). But about Bohème in general, and the Zeffirelli production in particular? The public is right.

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