One of the major complaints about the five year casting system (as well as the shared productions by different companies) is that operatic events are rarely surprises anymore. You thought Diva So-and-So and Divo This-and-That were great in Composer X’s “________”? Well, prepare to see them in that exact same opera and exact same production in London. And New York. And Munich. And Vienna. And so on and so forth.
As I’ve said previously, La Bohéme is an opera that’s proved stubbornly difficult to shoehorn into the five-year casting/director/production syndrome. Casting is often filled on a rolling basis, and whoever is available can drop in for a trip to the garret. But this season of Bohémes at the Met has to be unrivaled in terms of non-stop cast-change advisories.
On the Mimî side first-cast cycle Ekaterina Scherbachenko sang one performance and disappeared, and second-cast cycle Kristine Opolais chose Munich and Manon Lescaut over Mimí and the Met. The second-cycle Rodolfo, Ramón Vargas, canceled his entire run, and no fewer than four Rodolfos have subbed for him: Bryan Hymel, Francesco Demuro, Charles Castronovo, and finally, tonight, Michael Fabiano.
Fabiano came to the attention of many opera fans with the film The Audition. He was the cocky villain of that piece. He was good, and he knew it, and wasn’t afraid to express his confidence in his own greatness on camera. Since that film his career has had a meteoric rise, and in the process he’s acquired a fan following that’s perhaps unheard of for a tenor under 30. He’s sang smaller roles at the Metropolitan but tonight was his (unexpected) major big effing deal debut, in a sense. Reason #1 for opera queens to get excited.
Reason #1 is usually enough to make this an Event. But Michael’s MBEDD happened to converge with another Event, which was the major big effing diva return,. Angela Gheorghiu started off during the Gelb reign as a darling. She cooed about him in the presses. She showed up when she was supposed to show up.
I saw her several times in those “golden” years (2006-2009): in Bohéme, in Traviata, and finally, La Rondine, which she sang with her ex-husband Roberto Alagna. Oh I remember it so well. They seemed so in love. In the last scene as Magda peaced out on Ruggero Alagna sobbed loudly and clung to Gheorghiu and I cried with him.
But their relationship crashed and burned, and so did her relationship with the Met. After three major cancellations (Carmen, Romeo et Juliette, and Faust) the invitations stopped and she only appeared in New York in a one-off concert performance of Adriana Lecouvreur. Two measly Mimí’s were all she got this season. But considering she hadn’t appeared since 2010, this was a MEDDR of the highest order.
With that being said, sometimes when MBEDD’s and MEDDR’s are combined, the performance gets lost in the mix. Everyone is just on such an adrenaline high that people barely remember how anyone sang. Thankfully, all the buzz and all the adrenaline and all the people-spotting (Aprile Millo!) didn’t detract from the fact that on every level, this was also a majorly effing great performance.
No one was bad, everyone was on their A game, and what could have been a formulaic, tired, mid-week-mid-run zillionth Bohéme instead became the kind of thing where the audience for once stayed in their seats after the performance for huge ovations, multiple bouquet throws, and much happiness all around.
This was the first time I heard Fabiano live. I have to admit that before I heard him tonight, I thought he was a very good tenor, with a great range and pingy high notes, but that there was something slightly generic about his timbre. I guess in my mind Major Voices have Major Quirks, and Fabiano’s voice was so quirk-less. He has no prominent vibrato, no slightly strange attack on the high notes, etc. If it’s possible for a voice to sound Instagram-ed, that’s what his voice sounded like—so filtered and smooth, it was unnatural.
Well after tonight, these reservations are gone and I’m fully in with all the people at the stage door calling him Mr. Fabulous. First of all, his voice is a lot bigger than the average lyric tenor Rodolfo. You sense that Rodolfos and Nemorinos are not the end, but the beginning for this voice. It carries easily over the orchestra, the ensemble, and the long-held high notes truly have that exciting squillo that I dare say would have made Cosima Wagner screaming “bravo.”
He’s not yet an “actor” in any sense but he’s already so comfortable on the stage. His wig was a combed back chin-length concoction that gave him the appropriate hipster look. “Che gelida manina” offered a stunning high C and (I just have to include my new favorite phrase), good old-fashioned “perlaceous portamento.” (Thank you, crazed Angela Meade fan.)
Gheorghiu is now of a certain age, but you wouldn’t know it from the way she sashayed into the garret. She’s by far the most sexually aggressive MimíI’ve ever seen. She managed to make a coughing spell into a come-hither “you may admire my beautiful cleavage” moment.
She was also closer to Mürger’s petulant diva in Act Two. When Rodolfo didn’t buy her that necklace, she didn’t simper sweetly, but snapped that pink bonnet against her skirt and shot Rodolfo a terrifying ice glare. Of course she’s worked out the death scene better than anyone—the exact moment she whittles her voice down to a whisper, the audible snatched breath, the limp arms, and the dramatic bonnet drop.
Her voice sounded breathy and underpowered in “Si, mi chiamano Mimî,” with an over-use of glottal attacks in the lower register. Turns out she was saving her voice for a beautiful, floated, and, yes, loud high C at the end of “O soave fanciulla.” Well of course. She wasn’t going to let Mr. Fabulous take that moment. From then on her voice warmed up and at the end of the day, it’s still one of the most enchanting sounds in the business. Soft-grained, warm, and ingratiating.
She knew it too. She indulged in some typical Angela ppp note-spinning and very, uh, unique sense of tempi (which a befuddled Riccardo Frizza tried to follow), but she’s one of the rare voices that can get away with that kind of indulgence. “Sono andanti” was absolutely gorgeous. Fabiano and Gheorghiu probably met only a few days ago, but their voices blended together in a very special way. If you were annoyed by Angela’s mannerisms and quirks before the performance, this would have done nothing to change your mind, but if you’re a fan (like me) it was great stuff.
Susanne Phillips (Musetta) was such a relief after Myrtó “Please Make it Stop” Papanatisiu’s excruciating performance. Phillips has a naturally light, sweet, fluttery voice, and a wholesomeness that makes Musett’s antics humorous and not simply shrill and shrewish. Maybe she was propelled by the MBEDD and MEDDR to give a little more, because her Musetta also indulged in more shoe dramatics than I remember from her last year, and she threw her hat in Angela’s direction. She also got a huge ovation after “Quando m’en vo” and beamed directly at the audience in a “I’m having my own Major Effing Big Deal” moment that was endearing.
The quality of the lower male voices was also a factor in making this not another ho-hum Bohéme. David Bizic (Marcello), Matthew Rose (Colline), and Alessio Arduini (Schaunard) were all in better voice than the previous performance I had seen. Rose in particular gave an outstanding rendition of the “Vecchia zimarra,” so much so that one overeager fan at the stage door gushed “I want to be your overcoat.” Only John del Carlo (Benoit/Alcindoro) seemed impervious to all the MAJOR EFFING DEAL surroundings, seemingly content to do his comprimario thing. Frizza tried and failed to follow Gheorghiu all night, but probably because of this factor, led an energized, vigorous performance.
The stage door was buzzing tonight. A little girl and his mom were patiently waiting for “Mr. Fabulous” to emerge. Angela’s entourage of about a dozen people required several trips to load the huge bouquets into the town car. Her boyfriend was there, patiently ushering people into the Met so they could have their moment with Angela without Angela having to brave the elements. When it was my turn, she was pretty much everything I expected her to be. Of course I gushed and asked her to sign my Adriana Blu-ray.
“Will you sing this at the Met?”
“I don’t know. Ask Mr. Gelb,” she snapped.
For a moment the chill was definitely not just from the sub-zero New York temperatures. But then she snapped a selfie with me, and we’re both smiling. Notice the white fur trimmed jacket with matching gloves, and a whole new set of stage makeup and earrings. Just ignore the mousy face next to her.