Franco Zeffirelli seems to have a monopoly in video productions of Puccini's 'La Bohème.' Starting with his 1963 production for Karajan at Salzburg/La Scala, and then his Met version in the 1980s, and now back at La Scala (in that house's zoomy new Teatro degli Arcimboldi) his view of the opera hasn't much changed. In a charming 18-minute interview with him included in this DVD, he comments about how many generations of singers have performed in his productions over forty years. He even comments that the singers in this current production weren't even born when he first staged it for Karajan. He also comments, with just the slightest pique, that there have been nasty comments from critics about his concept but that 'the public continues to love it.' He also gets in some pretty strong statements about the wave among current opera directors to get far away from the libretto and music--the so-called Eurotrash approach. He clearly has little time for these productions, an opinion that warms my heart. His set and direction design are over-peopled but at least they stick to the libretto of Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica.
What of this production? Well, it looks a lot like the well-known Met production from the early 1980s. There is still the HUGE garret in Act I and the massive Café Momus scene. The Act III set is different and extraordinarily effective in providing space both for the interaction between Rodolfo and Mimì and later between Marcello and Musetta. The staging is also creative; I was amused by the oh-so-dignified drunk with an umbrella whose entrance and exit frame the entire act. Act IV is again quite similar to the Met production and like a fool I cried my eyes out--as always.
What of the singers? The Mimì is Cristina Gallardo-Domâs, waiflike and with huge eyes. She acts the part affectingly, probably the best actor on the stage. Her singing is a slightly different story. In the pianissimo pages she is stunning. But after Act I when the score calls for her to open up and declame loudly a breathiness creeps in that robs the voice both of heft and the ability to cut through the orchestra or other voices. Marcelo Álvarez is a moderately successful Rodolfo. He's not Pavarotti or Domingo, or even Carreras, but he handles both the singing and acting with professionalism and some degree of pathos. Not a top choice, however. He was much more effective--at least partly because the role better fits his voice--in last year's DVD of 'Manon' with Renée Fleming. Marcello is sung by Roberto Servile--who, I have to confess, looks enough like Plácido Domingo that I was momentarily confused--with a moderately large baritone. The voice is well-managed but lacks the last degree of suavity or heft. The clear star here is the Musetta of Hei-Kyung Hong. She not only looks stunning, but her voice is clearly in a league beyond that of her colleagues. Her 'Quando m'en vo' (Musetta's Waltz Song) is not only gorgeously sung, but her acting is first-rate. She is a spitfire in the Act III quartet and in Act IV she is endearingly touching. Whenever she is onstage one cannot take one's eyes off her. And the voice!
Minor characters--Schaunard, Colline, Benoit, Parpignol, Alcindoro--are all done unexceptionably. Giovanni Battista Parodi's Colline rightly got a big ovation for his 'Vecchia zimarra, senti.'
This is not the best 'Bohème' on DVD. That honor goes to the Met's production (Stratas/Scotto/Carreras/Levine) . Musically and dramatically it is generally superior, although one might make a case that in the current DVD the acting is slightly better. The 1963 Scala production, opened out in a film from 1965, with Freni and Raimondi, is superb. I notice that a 1969 production from the Met with Thomas Schippers conducting and featuring Freni and Pavarotti is due to be released this spring. I have not seen the Baz Luhrman-directed DVD from Australia Opera.
Bruno Bartoletti leads the musical forces with skill and subtlety and the La Scala Orchestra and Chorus are as good as one expects. The vidoegraphy is crisp, creative, inobtrusive. Sound--a choice of DD 5.1, DTS 5.1 or PCM Stereo--is just fine. Subtitles in English (but obviously translated by a non-native English speaker with a few amusing solecisms), German, French, Italian, Spanish. Extras: Interview with Franco Zeffirelli, in Italian with subtitles. TT=134 minutes