After having triumphed last month in Paris in Stéphane Braunschweig’s new Norma at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Maria Agresta began 2016 more modestly. For her American stage debut, the Italian soprano knocked on Rodolfo’s door as Mimi in the 458th performance of Franco Zeffirelli’s outsized production of Puccini’s La Bohème at the Metropolitan Opera, Her delicately-acted, sumptuously-sung seamstress transformed what might have been just an average Wednesday night revival into something finer.  

Born south of Naples, Agresta made her opera debut less than ten years ago excelling particularly in early Verdi operas like I due Foscari, I Masnadieri, Attila and Oberto which she sang at La Scala and to which she returns next month in Frankfurt. Her “big break” was replacing Sondra Radvanovsky as Elena in I Vespri Siciliani in Torino in 2011, followed by a triumph in Bergamo later that year in the demanding title role of Donizetti’s Gemma di Vergy.

Her busy schedule, however, remains dotted with performances of Mimi and Liu, the latter which she did last spring in Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s new production at La Scala and handily stole the show from Nina Stemme and Aleksandrs Antonenko.

Just before that, Nedda opposite Jonas Kaufmann’s first Canio in Pagliacci at the 2015 Salzburg Easter Festival was probably the highest profile event of her career so far.

A number of curious industry and Met insiders were in attendance at Wednesday’s debut. I wondered if they had caught Agresta’s only previous US appearance. Under Gianandrea Noseda who had also led that crucial Torino Vespri, she performed Rossini’s Stabat Mater at the 2013 Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center. The “Inflammatus” struck me as a bit underpowered and those rising trills were merely indicated, but the difficult “Qui es homo” duet with Daniela Barcellona was mighty impressive.

At Bohème from the moment she entered that familiar small garret, the winsomely pretty soprano announced that she was an artist of rare taste and refinement. While some singers have recently shaded that initial meeting to suggest that Mimi is “on the make,” Agresta was the soul of reticence. During Rodolfo’s passionate “Che gelida manina” she pored over his packet of poems only occasionally, furtively glancing up at him. Her yearning for spring, while vocally refulgent, occasioned only the slightest expansion of Mimi’s humble body language—this was no self-aggrandizing diva making an outsized play for applause from the Family Circle.

Many sopranos fade into the bustle of Zeffirelli’s heavily populated Café Momus but Agresta’s mellifluous, tender singing always brought one’s attention to her, particularly opposite Susanna Phillips’s grotesquely over-the-top Musetta. Her third-act “Addio” was particularly gripping with most of the aria delivered in a starkly candid manner, but from a melting “bada” she soared to tragic heights of heart-breaking acceptance. Her moving final duet with Rodolfo was similarly suffused with a wrenching, yet quiet resignation.

While not the most opulent or individual voice, her dark, clear soprano easily encompassed Puccini’s grateful writing with nuance and ease. Abetted by conductor Dan Ettinger’s sometimes alarmingly attenuated tempi, she carefully sculpted an uncommonly slow “Mi chiamino Mimi” dotted with ravishing pianissimi spun on a seemingly endless supply of breath. In the more expansive pages of the third act, Agresta filled the Met with a plush secure sound that never turned harsh or raw.

The debuting soprano had Bryan Hymel as her handsome, attentive lover: his open, vulnerable portrayal ably matched hers. I very much enjoyed his Pinkerton opposite Amanda Echalaz two years ago, but his light, narrowly focused tenor unfortunately often sounded all wrong for Rodolfo. Although his slicing, shining top was handy in the aria and in the (well-sung, but tasteless) interpolated high C offstage at the end of “O soave fanciulla,” one missed the sunny warmth, particularly in the middle of the voice, that one needs in this role. I understand that the Met wants to showcase this valuable singer as often as it can and of course one can’t mount Les Troyens or Guillaume Tell for him every season, but Bohème just doesn’t present him at his best, despite his endearing sincerity.

No reservations, however, came to mind about Quinn Kelsey’s luxurious Marcello. What a treat to hear such a big, healthy baritone in a role that can often be given short-shrift. His fiery, mercurial manner was a welcome contrast to Hymel’s more subdued, quiet intensity; they made something quite special of the fourth-act duet although it was nearly derailed by some of Ettinger’s more perverse choices.

By the end of this six-performance run, Phillips will have sung nearly 40 Musettas at the Met. While less vocally fraught than her recent Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus, Wednesday’s performance was marred by frequently edgy high notes, and her brassy “Quando m’en vo” couldn’t have been less seductive. Surely there are lots of other sopranos the Met might present in this grateful role.

Debuting bass Kihwan Sim resisted the temptation to turn Colline’s coat aria into an attention-grabbing scena. Instead, he sang it touchingly letting it remain the quiet moment Puccini intended. David Pershall, who had debuted last month as Figaro in the abbreviated, English-language Il Barbiere di Siviglia, completed this endearingly young and lively quartet of Bohemians but his dull, grainy baritone failed to savor Schaunard’s few opportunities to shine. Now that Paul Plishka has retired, John Del Carlo has become the Met’s inevitable Benoit and Alcindoro both of which he performed with gusto.

As suggested, Ettinger’s conducting frequently frustrated. Paolo Carignani conducted this season’s first performances with Barbara Frittoli and Ramon Vargas as an alarmingly worn-sounding pair of “young” lovers, so Ettinger was probably given little time to rehearse with his orchestra. But for all his willful extremes, it must be said he did draw some gorgeous playing from the Met musicians.

It was 34 years ago I attended my first Met performance; it was this same production of La Bohème, the last show with the cast of its premiere, except for Julia Migenes who had taken over from Renata Scotto. Although the production has long since lost the compelling naturalistic details of Zeffirelli’s original direction, it still retains much of its potent magic. And Agresta’s reminded me more than once of the last-ever Mimi of Teresa Stratas which I admired with awestruck wonder at my Met debut.

Agresta sings just three more performances before Hei Kyung Hong returns to a role she first sang at the Met 29 years ago! After Agresta and Kelsey visit the Richard Eyre Traviata at Covent Garden, she, Hymel and Ettinger reconvene in mid-April at the Met for five more Bohèmes with a new supporting cast that includes erstwhile Mimi Ailyn Perez as Musetta.

After last night’s success, Agresta, who has been proclaimed by some Italy’s leading soprano, tweeted: “@Met Opera, Another dream realized!!!  I’m so happy!!!” On the basis of her treasurable Mimi, one hopes that she will return to the Met soon–and often.

Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera