La Bohème

Composed by Giacomo Puccini, libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, based on the novel, Scènes de la Vie de Bohème by Henri Murger
Met Opera on Demand
Metropolitan Opera House, New York
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Luciano Pavarotti, Renata Scotto and Ingvar Wixell
Renata Scotto and Luciano Pavarotti

As actor Tony Randall proudly announces before the start of the performance, directed in a traditional setting by Fabrizio Melano, this historic event was the first live telecast of an opera from the new Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Center.

Recorded in 1977, it thus inaugurated the “Live from the Met” series that is now helping to keep so many people around the world sane during lockdown.

The production is worthy of the occasion, as becomes apparent from the moment that the legendary Luciano Pavarotti opens his mouth as Rodolfo and powerfully holds forth in a rich, fruity tenor, which soars when he meets and falls for Mimi, played by his Italian compatriot, iconic soprano Renata Scotto.

The literally dark, realistic period setting has a Dickensian feel, whether observing the starving artists in their garret or the contrasting love affairs of Rodolfo and shy Mimi on one hand and Marcello and brash Musetta on the other, baritone Ingvar Wixell and a second soprano Maralin Niska also lighting up the evening with fine singing.

The four-act plot will be familiar to many readers but, in brief, the evening opens with a quartet of starving bohemian creative types sharing a garret, in this case with the proportions of a small factory.

Almost literally starving, they are unable to pay the rent or heat their home, until Rodolfo generously solves the latter problem by sacrificing his new play to the stove.

Love impinges in the form of neighbour Mimi, who shares some farcical attempts at wooing with Rodolfo, the pair quickly becoming an item.

Their passion is compared with that of Marcello and Musetta, the former continually frustrated by his lover’s flighty desire to enjoy the good life, cynically using rich old men as necessary.

The evening builds towards a tragic climax, as the heroine succumbs to consumption, leaving barely a dry eye in the house.

Watching this recording, you realise and appreciate how far technology and techniques have developed over the last four decades.

The picture quality is that of a mediocre videotape, while the limited number of cameras restricts angles and close-ups. In addition, the lighting has made no accommodations towards the cameras, at times some of the performers literally disappearing from view in dark corners.

Even in the festive choral scenes, while it is possible to get an idea of the live experience, the joyous event looks somewhat drab.

It must also be noted that in 1977, the attitude to acting on the part of opera stars also pays no lip service to the cameras. The word “wooden” comes to mind when watching even the most passionate or tragic moments.

However, the main attraction of opera is the music and this sounds glorious, as the orchestra under a young James Levine supports a cast hand-picked to embellish such a special occasion.

Both Pavarotti and Scotto deliver exceptional vocal performances, while those surrounding them are more than equal to the task in an enjoyable couple of hours that heralded the start of something really special.

There are a number of ways of tapping into this opera and others at will. The Met Opera On Demand service offers annual ($149.99) and monthly ($14.99) subscriptions as well as a one-off payment ($4.99) for those who have limited time or only want to watch the occasional opera.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher