NEW YORK -- Franco Zeffirelli's many-splendored new production of Puccini's 'La Boheme' is the Metropolitan Opera's Christmas present to its fans which will be unwrapped on national television for Public Broadcasting Service audiences on Jan. 20.
Zeffirelli is unquestionably the world's leading producer-designer of opera, and his 'La Boheme' is nothing short of a triumph of old-fashioned stagecraft -- detailed, explicit, dramatic and incredibly beautiful. It had its debut Dec. 14 and will be seen 19 more times at the Met during the remainder of the season.
The Jan. 20 telecast on PBS stations from coast to coast, part of the 'Live from the Met' series, is scheduled for 8 p.m. EST.
It may be argued that Puccini's simple tale of true love told against a background of licentious Parisian Bohemianism of the 1840s is too intimate a work for Zeffirelli's grandiose treatment. The best answer is that Zeffirelli has made Paris come alive as no one before him at the Met has been able to do.
The first and second acts, performed without intermission in this production, take place on Christmas Eve, and Zeffirelli has caught the essence of new romance and simple-minded revelry among the poor of the great city. The garret where Mimi meets Rodolfo perches against an icy gray sky like a stork's nest among chimney pots punctuating the slate roofs of the Latin Quarter.
The isolation of this scene contracts strikingly with the Cafe Momus act, which Zeffirelli has given a multi-level set populated with street crowds numbering nearly 400. Street lamps and glowing apartment windows, vendors' carts which move aside to reveal the cafe interior, a horse and carriage, a donkey, hordes of celebrating children, a military band, a performing bear, a stiltwalker and many other marvelous details give the Met's stage a delightful Christmas card appearance.
The third act, never successfully staged at the Met, becomes the opera's most memorable, thanks to Zeffirelli's romantic imagination. He has created a muted midnight snowscene in which the ghostly statuary of the Gate of Hell tollgate at the edge of Paris looms above straggling pedestrians in flowing black capes with bell-shaped umbrellas who move as though in a slow motion ballet.
The fourth act, which returns to the garret in summer, provides a fantasy background for the mock duel of the Bohemian artists who prance playfully across the tile roofs, now abloom with potted flowers. As the light dies, Mimi is brought there to expire, in a suffusion of bittersweet twilight that is nothing short of magic.
Zeffirelli was nobly aided in this project by costume designer Peter J. Hall, who was at his best in achieving Mimi's simple but fetching gowns, and by lighting designer par excellence Gil Wechsler. Paying for the sort of spectacle that Broadway no longer can afford was Mrs. Donald D. Harrington, one of the Met's most generous angels.
That the cast was not able to match the production isn't news at the Met today, since the house is no longer able to pay the fees demanded by some of the world's great artists on a regular basis. Teresa Stratas was a lovable Mimi and her pure but not big voice was affecting on many occasions during the Dec. 14 premiere performance. She was the audience favorite although she could have sketched a more individual portrait both dramatically and vocally.
Jose Carreras' young tenor is darkening as his career advances and this was never more noticeable than in his performance of Rodolfo, a role that calls for a tenor of electric brilliance. Carreras' voice is generally beautiful but the high notes were 'white' in quality and far from effortless. He was also less impassioned than Roldolfo should be. The other Bohemians -- Richard Stillwell, James Morris, and especially Allan Monk -- provided well sung and individual portraits, and 66-year-old Italo Tajo was perfection in two character roles.
And so we come to Renata Scotto, whose vocal deterioration has reached the stage where she causes apprehension among her hearers. Musetta is a perfect role for her temperament, and her vocal scoops and whoops fitted better her amusingly outrageous characterization of the tart with the heart of gold than they fit her 'Norma' earlier this season. Still, she is in no position to try to steal the show, which was her obvious intention in 'La Boheme.'
Conductor James Levine led a sensitive if somewhat slow reading of the score, and the music had a tendency to overwhelm the singers at times.