Saturday, November 24, 2018

Luciano and Renata's Perfect Boheme

I've had a lot of time over this Thanksgiving holiday being at home and staying warm. A constant friend has been the TV. While attention has been given to Netflix, with "Get Shorty" and Season 3 of "Dare Devil" vying to be my favorite show, a lot of time has also been spent on the worth-every-penny "Met on Demand." In the past few days I've watched "Wagner's Dream"; "The Opera House"; "Giulio Cesare"; "Die Walkure"; and a few others, but nothing surprised me - or lite me up nearly as much - as a production I'd not watched since its re-release a decade or so ago - and an opera I often steer clear out of sheer over familiarity. The opera? "La Boheme." The stars? Luciano Pavarotti and Renata Scotto. While the singing, naturally, goes straight to the heart of the matter, there was something about the entire cast's performance, but notably our Mimi and Rodolfo.

While Scotto famously stated that after seeing herself in this production, she immediately decided she had to lose weight to become more effective actress, I don't think it's true. She can't by any stretch be considered "fat" and her Mimi could not possibly be more dramatic and heartbreaking without crossing over into caricature. Her gestures are large, born of a verismo-esque style that she brought to the many non-verismo operas, which had mostly been her bread and butter. Those larger than life gestures are not in the least unwelcome as the diminutive diva accesses the broad scope of emotions Puccini gives his Mimi; there is shyness, there is strength of purpose, there is a little pride, a little anger, a little self pity and a million other things all beating in this girl's heart. Her Act 4 "dumb show" during the interlude, after the other Bohemians leave and Rodolfo's back is turned to her - a noble, arduous attempt to rise from her death bed fails as the music swells with life and, caught in the blankets she is held, earthbound, is a lesson in physical acting that took my breath away. At almost every turn, Scotto is not a star, but a true member of an ensemble, something that seems to happen more these days, but was rare to see back then. But she knows when to turn it on and she shows us why death scenes were something of her specialty.

Also part of an ensemble was the Rodolfo of Luciano Pavarotti. Considerably svelter than before (and then he would be shortly thereafter) there is something of the natural comedian about this beary tenor and he exhibits a physical grace and energy that was and would again become rare for him. His rush to pick up a dropped item from the floor, his bending to the floor with Mimi, his "dash" across the stage, the faux balletic poses he makes for the Act Four dance sequence, it all feels natural and creates a Rodolfo that is sunnier and less "I'm just a dope in love" than we sometimes see. And then there's the singing. Ave Maria, the sounds made are the Rodolfo of one's dreams and together, he and Little Renata truly do make music.

The rest of the cast was, more or less, also up to the task, but there was no mistaking whose show this was, even while being about them all, though I'd single out Alan Monk's Schaunard for some touching acting, and being the sort of "framer"of the death scene, and wonderfully captured by the cameras.

Fabrizio Melano directs the cast in this uber-traditional production (on loan from Lyric Opera of Chicago) with no nonsense, and Levine and the Met forces were, even then, in tremendous form and in service of Puccini.

The excitement extends, as it always should, through the curtain calls and cheers, and while everyone milks it for all their worth, no one holds a candle to Scotto. She comes out to a roark from the house and immediately makes a deep curtsy-type bow moving almost ninja-like toward the stage apron to retrieve a small bouquet, and in so doing kneels, than sits there like she was Judy Garland. Naturally, the ovation intensifies and so does Scotto's beaming, beatific smile. Another lesson from the old days.

Oddly, I think a lot of today's opera's powers-that-be would find this old production with youngish, though still middle-aged singers, to be the antithesis of what they feel opera should be about. I'd disagree and say, at least in this instance, it is everything opera should and can be about.

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