Cher Public

Snow business

Every year I say I’m not going to another La Bohème because I’ve seen this too many times. And every year I end up going to multiple performances. I always find an excuse. “Oh there’s so-and-so singing and I haven’t heard him in anything but Madama Butterfly and that doesn’t even count because the tenor doesn’t sing at all after the first act …” But today after I won the lotto for yet another Bohème I wondered if I go simply because the opera (and production) is comfort food. At this point in my second career as an opera-queen-with-two-X-chromosomes, La Bohème doesn’t require very active, pins-and-needles listening. It’s like watching an old MGM musical. 

Another reason La Bohème remains such a popular opera for hardcore opera fans in NYC is that it’s one of the few operas at the Met that doesn’t abide by the much-loathed five-year plan. La Bohème is programmed based on availability, so you often get hotly-discussed singers who haven’t made it into the five-year-international circuit plan slotted to enter the garret. You also get many sopranos of a certain age given one or two pity performances. So yeah, a vehicle for new voices and old, almost-forgotten sopranos means there’s both excitement and nostalgia in many a Bohème night.

Tonight’s was Exhibit A for how slapdash casting often is for this opera. It was originally going to be Kristine Opolais and Ramón Vargas as Rodolfo and Mimi. Then Anna Netrebko walked out of a production of Manon Lescaut in Munich, and Opolais jetted off to Germany to replace her. So Sonya Yoncheva, who was slated to be the Musettas in the January cast, got pulled out of Musetta to sub for Marina “My Voice is Shot” Poplavskaya in La Traviata and made her role debut as Mimi in the November/December run of Bohème. All this less than a month after having a baby. Oh, and Vargas also canceled and so Bryan Hymel (who sang the September run of Bohème) flew back from Chicago to sub for Vargas. Forget the five-year plan, this Bohème was like the five-day plan.

The good news is the role of Mimi fits Yoncheva like a warm winter muff (or pretty pink bonnet). Her voice is warm and enveloping and projects beautifully throughout the auditorium. She timbre is the kind that never fails to enchant audiences—soft-grained and dusky with a flickering vibrato to give the voice a vibrant sheen. She phrases with delicacy but her voice can soar over the orchestra at opportune moments. She also looks perfect for the part, with the raven hair and pale skin and sad downcast eyes. In the last act she wore her hair in this perfect half-up-half-down-do that allowed curls of black hair to frame her face beautifully as she expired. Her Mimi is on the ladylike side—she doesn’t make a big show of blowing out the candle or sashaying her skirt. But it’s a perfectly charming performance and an A+++ voice. I can’t wait to see her in Traviata.

Hymel was a more awkward fit for Rodolfo. This was my first time hearing him live. I had been under the impression that his voice was a big, exciting one with lots of squillo and huge ringing top notes. Um … not the case. In fact, I was shocked at how tiny his voice sounded at first. The middle is basically a cold, colorless, narrow tube of sound that projects poorly. This has nothing to do with actual voice size—onstage with him were voices of varying sizes and colors, but they all had a healthy projection into the auditorium. Hymel’s sound projection tended to die somewhere between the garret roof and the prompter’s box. His top is undeniably more exciting, but I was also surprised that for someone who can sing the 16 high C’s of Arnold in Guillaume Tell, he took two standard transpositions—one in “Che gelida manina,” and another one in “O soave fanciulla,” presumably so he could go for the unwritten high option, which in this case became a B instead of a C. I didn’t mind those transpositions, but I was surprised again that someone known for his high C’s would transpose down. His portrayal of Rodolfo was stiff and humorless. He doesn’t have the joie de vivre. I’m just going to write this off as a very poor fit between singer and role, as Hymel’s gotten raves from too many people whose judgment I trust.

Myrtò Papatanasiu is a soprano whose work I admired in several videos, including the Herheim Rusalka. But her performance as Musetta was so bad that it really couldn’t be written off as the wrong role. First the positives: she’s an attractive woman. But the visceral reaction to her voice is along the lines of “wow that voice fell off the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down.” How do I cringe from thee? Let me count the ways. There’s that shrill, whitish top, and the hollow, throaty, old-lady quavery middle, and the hard, charmless delivery, and finally her interpretation of Musetta as a complete shrew. I now have two “Oh.My.God.” singers. There’s Jonas “Oh.My.God” Kaufmann, and there’s Myrto “Oh.My.God” Panatanasiu. One turned me into a crying fangirl, the other turned me into… a crying girl.

The other males were okay. David Bizic (Marcello) was more than okay last year as Albert, but then again Marcello isn’t that showy of a role. Matthew Rose (Colline) doesn’t make much of “Vecchia zimarra” and John del Carlo hams up Benoit/Alcindoro even more than usual. Conductor Riccardo Frizza did the impossible and made the evergreen Puccini score sound alternately plodding and charmless with his unfocused conducting. He often allowed the orchestra to meander and then cut off phrases with the brusqueness of a nun rapping a disobedient child with a ruler.

Despite Yoncheva’s opulent voice, this Bohème never really warmed up. The Zeffirelli classic usually gets happy cheers after each act and a warm final ovation. But tonight, only golf claps. Let’s hope the garret is a little warmer in January when I make yet another trip to see a totally different cast.

Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

  • Myrtò Papatanasiu was excellent when I heard her -- but that was as Sifare in Mitridate, re di Ponto, not Puccini.

    • This was a bit more along the lines of what I heard last night. Pretty fugly voice.

      • Rudolf

        @ Poison Ivy
        :)
        “Pretty fugly voice” was my reaction when I listened to the various Opolais samples on YouTube. So far, her success eludes me.

  • I also think the famous garret set has to be one of the most acoustically unfriendly sets ever. I’ve heard many a voice sound tiny in the garret, with their “real” voices only coming out in Acts 2 and 3. Particularly Act 3. The garret is recessed in a real acoustical dead spot on the stage.

    • calaf47

      Sorry Ivy…but I just checked my SIRIUS radio broadcast…and Mr Hymel did NOT transpose anything…not his aria nor the end of the first act. Both high Cs were firmly in place.

      • Hmm I was listening in the house and “O soave fanciulla” definitely had that sudden key change where the typical transposition takes place. I also thought I heard the transposition before “Che gelida manina.” But I don’t have the broadcast so you could be right.

        • calaf47

          I just checked with another friend…who also recorded it…..no transposition. When I saw him on October with Hong as Mimi…there was no transposition at that time either….tho I’m sure there will be when Mr Vargas steps back into the role.

          • Ok well I could have been wrong. But I definitely thought I heard the same key change that happens at around 1:45 in this video:

            • operatenorman

              here’s a thought -- instead of just giving an example of what we all know is the way people transpose this aria -- maybe apologize for the comments you made without being sure. i’m sure there were those that read this that thought hymel ACTUALLY took down the aria and end of act i, and only because you were not using “active, pins-and-needles listening” and instead just actively judging. not hymel’s fault you assumed something happened that didn’t.

            • Here’s a thought: I already said I could be wrong and La C has deleted the passage so relax yourself.

            • operatenorman

              I appreciate that you think you said you were wrong -- but your admission of incorrectness is quite like one who apologizes for being rude by saying “i’m sorry you thought I was being rude.”

              >>>”Hmm I was listening in the house and “O soave fanciulla” definitely had that sudden key change where the typical transposition takes place.. I don’t have the broadcast so you could be right.” and “Ok well I COULD HAVE been wrong. But I definitely thought I heard…”<<<

              Saying you "could have" been wrong is not the same as saying you are indeed wrong.

      • I’ve deleted out the text about the transpositions pending a check against the broadcast. (The cher public are generally very accurate about such things!)

  • Milady DeWinter

    You know Ivy, I listened via Sirius and was not aware than Hymel transposed “Che gelida”: foiled and fooled again! He sort of sings the aria like a JDF on steroids, a bel canto exercise in virtuosity that is exciting but not dreamy. The top note immpressed and cowled the audience for sure, and they clearly admire him -- but don’t ‘love’ him they way they have done with some of his more mellifluous predecessors. His voice is woinderful, and a wonderful fit in the music of Meyerbeer and Rossini etal. To my ear the voice sounds like the love child of Fernando DeLucia and Leon Escalais -- sort of ear-splitting at the top, but in an exciting way. Just not very honeyed. In vain did I wait for a subito piano at the Act III ensemble/duet “a la stagione dei fior”.
    And speaking of pianissimi, in vain do I wait for a Mimi to vault to a pianissimo A at “di primavera” in “Mi chaimano Mimi”; nor did she make much of the final phrases of “Addio senza rancor” (although I give her points for using some old-fashioned portamenti here and there). Other than that, I found her pleasant, and she may be beautiful and good onstage, but the voice is not a wow, although it owns a lovely mid-range tone that obviously “speaks” across the footlights. Miss Papatanisiu’s top, like Hymel’s, was ear-splitting, but without Hymel’s cultivated art. For me, the trend to conduct (and sing) everything as if it’s THE most important phrase in the world makes for luxuriant orchestral playing and overblown singing at the expense of spontaneity and nuance.

    • Milady DeWinter

      Thanks for double-checking, Calaf; I did not think there were transpositions in Act 1 and was quite abashed whenIvy said they were ttansposed. I sort of have a built-in low A-flat for that aria, and no pitch alarms went off when he started it. And they both wailed the hell out of the concluding Act 1 high C exit.
      And mind you, even though I am sort of complaining about Hymel’s Rodolfo per se, I am glad that he is availing himself of every opportunity to keep his foot in the Met’s door. Eventually he’ll land with the right vocal fit again, as he did with his spectacular Enee. In the meantime, the Met can always use fine singers of his caliber on the roster. Same with Miss Yoncheva, although I don’t quite get all the fuss, yet. I think she is capable of fine thoungs given a little more experience and some coaching to apply that maxim that “sometimes less is more.”

    • peter

      The voice is not a wow, at least on the broadcast as Anita Hartig’s was last year but I’m assuming she must be the total package live. She certainly is in demand at major opera houses.

      • Milady DeWinter

        I agree, Peter -- Hartig’s poetic line and lovely arcs of tone were beautiful to hear, and also very apt to Mimi’s character development. She was a wow.

      • Guestoria Unpopularenka

        The voice is definitely a wow live. I have reservations on the way it sounds on the Met broadcasts. I don’t know if it’s the mics in the house or what but they don’t capture its full bloom while instead add some strange metallic ingredient to it. The same was with Rigoletto’s broadcast last year, while I don’t hear this from other venues on radio or amateur recordings.

        Live it’s warm and velvety, not to mention how well it projects in the hall.

  • Patrick Mack

    ‘Golf Claps’. Classic Poison. Brava.

  • quibbleglib

    Thanks for the review, Poison Ivy!

    A note about Hymel’s top and the supposed (I believe you!) transposition of Che gelida. The fact of the matter is that not all high Cs are created equal, and the C in Che gelida is notoriously difficult — which is why many tenors renowned for their high notes, including the great Björling and Pavarotti, often transposed this aria down in live performances. Considering the tessitura of the aria combined with the amount one must project in a house as overdimensioned as the Met, I can certainly understand Mr. Hymel’s decision to transpose it.

    Mr. Lauri Volpi, however, would not agree:

  • Orlando Furioso

    Neither my viewing of him in the Troyens movie cast or reports from friends who’ve seen him would have led me to think that Hymel had a huge squall-esque tenor. What he sounded like to me is an unusually laid out tenor with a lean, pointed middle, a more ringing top (but not in the usual way), and a comfort with constant high-ish tessitura that makes him virtually ideal for the heroic roles of Berlioz, Meyerbeer, and the later Rossini, roles which defeat most other tenors today.

    • Milady DeWinter

      You are correct, Orlando -- and those wonderful virtues, tailor-made for French grand opera, can work against him in Puccini and other more mortal fare and tessituras.

    • Every time I look back at what I wrote at the time, I find it almmost useless. I heard Hymel only when he stood in for Kaufmann in the ROH’s Les Troyens:

      “He has a bright, heady voice. Too heady, in fact, for the famous singer I chatted with at the second interval, but perhaps that was just professional jealousy, or pique at not seeing Kaufmann. Nevertheless, those critics who claimed we were not only not short-changed by Kaufmann’s illness but actually emerged better-off were making a virtue of necessity”.

    • DeepSouthSenior

      Hymel’s strength as ” . . .comfort with constant high-ish tessitura . . ” That is one of the most helpful phrases I’ve read in a long time.

  • PushedUpMezzo

    Oh for a lean pointed middle! Let alone laid out.

  • operaassport

    I thought it sounded transposed as well but whether or not that happened what I did think was that it didnt sound like a Rodolfo voice at all.

    • Guestoria Unpopularenka

      It’s not transposed, I recorded it and just checked on the piano.

  • YigeLi

    OK, this is bit off topic:

    A very recent interview of Anna Netrebko and Yusif Eyvazov in Russian, kindly translated into English, thankss to Galina Vasiltsova (turn on the subtitle with “CC” button)! A great presentation of two serious artists and a loving couple. In the interview, Anya also talked (a little bit) about the “event” in Bayerische Staatsoper. She clearly pointed out she had no problem with Regietheater but THAT production. Anyone against Regietheater trying to put words into her mouth after that “event”--time to put those words back to your OWN mouths!

    In the interview, Anya also said she would sing Tosca one day, but still said “no” to Butterfly.

    • Rudolf

      @ YigeLi
      Thank you for posting this charming interview. They both come across as very likable and down to earth. He “blames” her for arriving unprepared and she “blames” him for being a poor actor. Despite it all, they had a nice success in Rome.
      :)

    • Quanto Painy Fakor

      So Tiago is now Tisha. And, if the subtitles are accurately translated, the tenor refers to him as “our child.” I think the nicest part of the couple’s interview is that there is no language barrier between them. It will be interesting to see what comes to pass. One certainly would not find such a long and lively interview between two opera singers on American TV.

      • Quanto Painy Fakor

        Meanwhile… “Star Tenor”

        • Lohengrin

          No tenor!!

    • DeepSouthSenior

      One word to describe Anna in this interview: Relaxed. None of that tense body language I’ve seen at other times. Good for her, and good for them together. Long may it continue.

  • Guestoria Unpopularenka

    “Opolais jetted off to Germany”

    I think she was there the whole time doing Clemenza. She certainly wasn’t in NY.

    • Lohengrin

      She had Clemenza till 23.October.
      If the “change” had taken place early enough,she had stayed in München.I fear she took her flight to NY via Boston and returnedabout one week ot less more after to München (in the early days of November). She tells that there had been only one week for rehearsals (counted to the dress).

  • Guestoria Unpopularenka

    Whoever is interested and not listening/attending the HD, WQXR will be broadcasting Faust from ROH London with Yoncheva, Calleja, Terfel, Keenlyside tomorrow at 1 pm.

  • I don’t get it. He sounds great here.

    • laddie

      I just think he is a whole other animal in the French repertoire. i heard him live in Santa Fe as Faust, it was sublime.

      • Flora del Rio Grande

        Subline? Tut, Laddie! Are you referring to the Faust?
        It was very good, which in tenors these days is something
        to be thankful for! But I do like his voice and he uses it well.
        If he is careful and avoids spinto rep for some years more,
        he should have a good career. Good luck to him, I wish him
        well
        FLORA

    • steveac10

      While I applaud the Met for keeping him visible in New York in the short term, I fear all this Puccini they’ve been tossing him into is doing him a disservice in the long run -- it’s not really his thing. This is a voice that really shines in a rep where most major tenors merely make do. Hopefully they’re planning things like a Cellini revival and some French Verdi/Rossini in the future. I’d also like to hear him as Hoffman and Faust. One day, I’d also wouldn’t mind hearing him tackle Huon in Oberon -- even if only in concert.

      • RosinaLeckermaul

        I totally agree. He didn’t sound in BOHEME like the same singer I heard in TROYENS or in CARMEN at the ROH. It was a thinnish sound that didn’t carry well. These forays into Puccini are not going to build up his fan base.

    • antikitschychick

      wow, he certainly does sound terrific in this clip (and the beard is secsy too :-P). Thanks for posting this Ivy.

      based on this recording (again from Thursday’s performance):

      It sounds like the voice is just not right for Puccini. Not the right warmth or placement imho but that doesn’t preclude him from being great in other roles which he obviously is. Just goes to show what a difference rep and tessitura can make. Plus, he was really filling in for the tenor that got ill, amirite? So he was just doing the Met a favor and since he’s one of the younger artists this was a good opportunity to showcase him to an arguably wider audience since Boheme is one of those operas that attracts casual Opera fans. At least the Met is shaking things up a bit in terms of casting, which as Ivy rightly points out, usually happens a lot more in this opera than in the other routinely performed classics.

      • arepo

        Hearing this clip and comparing it to Hymel’s Pinkerton left me scratching my head too. He sounded nothing like himself and Yoncheva’s voice actually seemed to be overpowering his.
        I know Puccini insisted he wanted the soprano voice to stand out but I was frankly surprised at the lack of power I thought he had.
        However, his last note was definitely a C.
        I played it back immediately on our Steinway which was just tuned.

        • antikitschychick

          yeah it definitely sounded like a C to me as well and it’s really the one note he sang that sounded impressive based on that clip although it’s not really fair to make any sweeping assessment based on just that excerpt. Again I really think it’s the placement of the voice that’s at issue (French rep allows, nay requires more forward placement in order to get the vowels right and access those high notes and jumps easily whereas Puccini requires more of a warmer, more covered and larger sound) which I think also has to do with the fact that he was singing another role right before or during this run; it’s really hard to make such quick adjustments between styles. Normally the role needs too sit in the voice for a bit in order for a singer to be really comfortable with it. Perhaps Puccini is something he needs to work on for a longer period of time.

          In any event, I am looking forward to hearing great things from him in the future. I think he’s a superior singer to Stephen Costello (nothing against him but I have been disappointed by some of the latest videos/recordings I’ve seen of him) and he also has formidable stage presence.

  • DeepSouthSenior

    Ivy, your review was so witty and chatty and informative that I had to read it out loud to Mrs. DeepSouth. We had a slight (and funny) hiccup, though, when I read this passage: “I now have two ‘Oh.My.God.’ singers. There’s Jonas ‘Oh.My.God’ Kaufmann, and there’s Myrto ‘Oh.My.God’ Panatanasiu. One turned me into a crying fangirl, the other turned me into… a crying girl.” Right after “There’s Jonas ‘Oh.My.God’ Kaufmann, from way across the room Mrs. DSS stopped me and said rather forcefully, “What wrong with Jonas?” (She’s more of a Florez fan, but she gets the Jonas ‘fangirl’ thing. We were young once, too, in the era of Elvis, Paul McCartney, and such like.) I asked her to hold off a bit and listen to the whole paragraph. Afterwards she said, “Ok, I get it. That makes sense.”

    • antikitschychick

      awwwww, how adorable. Thanks for sharing that DSS.

      Also:

      This was taken from Thursday’s performance. She sounds terrific. Beautiful voice, great legato and great feel for the music. Hope I get to see/hear her in Jan. in Traviata!

    • Aww thanks DSS. I’m glad Mrs. DSS is in the Jonas fan-club :)

  • arepo

    My Liege:
    You never disappoint. Your reviews are like you, feisty, fun, down-to-earth and very readable.
    Don’t go away.