Cher Public

Reason to believe

While not especially eager to trudge to the Met for yet another La Bohème, I was extraordinarily happy to have done so Monday evening to encounter Angel Blue and Russell Thomas as Mimi and Rodolfo. 

More than a decade years after his Met debut Thomas was finally being given a multi-performance run of a leading role, and having read both Big James‘ and Little James’ raves about Blue’s debut during the season’s opening week, I was eager to experience her live; together they did not disappoint.

A generous open-hearted performer, she brought a fresh soaring lyric soprano that nicely filled the Met. Her quick vibrato adds an interesting tang to her timbre and in the lower voice it occasionally reminded me of Barbara Hendricks’s. If she didn’t yet bring a wealth of individual touches to her music, her emotional honesty and sincerity proved quite touching.

She’s also a vivid stage presence: there was never any doubt about how ill Mimi was. For the first time in memory there was more coughing onstage than in the audience.

Her chemistry with Thomas was palpable; together they brought an interesting spin to the all-too-familiar Mimi-Rodolfo relationship. Rather than naïve lovers, they seemed to have both been around the block a few times. Their interactions had both a fresh eagerness but also a slightly world-weary acceptance of the ebb and flow of relationships.

This came through particularly well in the third act when they decided to reunite just one more time, a moment suffused with both joy and a foreboding of the inevitable unhappy ending ahead.

Despite being a graduate of the Met Lindeman Young Artist Program, Thomas has been a puzzlingly infrequent presence in the house. In July he starred in Peter Sellars’s new La Clemenza di Tito which opened the Salzburg Festival while his surprising, wry and exceedingly well-sung Loge nearly stole the show at the New York Philharmonic’s gala Das Rheingold send-off for Alan Gilbert.

Despite recent successes around the world as Pollione, Cavaradossi and Don José, he’s been cast in roles like Ismaele in Nabucco and Andrès in Wozzeck at the Met.

While Rodolfo might not show off the intense tenor’s best qualities, he sang beautifully, ardent and nuanced, showing more care for dynamics than a number of others I could mention. If the top didn’t always have ideal freedom (he took the aria down), it manifested a convincing Italianate ring.

He gets lots of points in my book for not joining the soprano for the off-stage high C at the end of the first act, unlike far too many of my previous Met Rodolfos. Let’s hope these Bohème performances are a harbinger of more regular appearances for this evolving artist at the house.

This opera has become a revolving door for singers in recent years: Monday’s six principals only came together for just that one performance. The blunt Marcello, Michael Todd Simpson, sang only Thursday and Monday; Lucas Meachem returns on Friday which will be Blue’s final Mimi.

Matthew Rose’s first Colline of the season which featured a surprisingly choppy “Vecchia zimara” happened Monday while Javier Arrey makes his Met debut as Schaunard on November 1 when Anita Hartig takes over as Mimi. Duncan Rock, my suave Schaunard, debuted the same night as Blue and returns on November 4!

The dizzying cast shuffling might explain why the efficient conductor Alexander Soddy more often followed his singers rather than led them. Other than the indulgent conductor, the sole constant in the fall run of Bohème is the harsh, unsteady, cartoonish, incomprehensible Musetta of Brigitta Kele who also sang seven Musettas last season—why on earth?

Before Blue knocked on the garret door to ask Thomas to relight her candle last week, some had wondered if there had ever been an African-American Mimi and Rodolfo at the Met. Some intensive detective work turned up just a single previous instance over thirty years ago when Roberta Alexander and Vinson Cole loved and lost on that vast stage.

Although Monday evening’s enthusiastic, flower-throwing audience seemed unconcerned about this near-novelty of casting, I thought back to the recent stink caused by the refusal by the estate of Edward Albee to allow a black actor to appear as Nick in a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in Portland, Oregon.

As Nick is described as white, blond and blue-eyed, presumably Albee’s executors believed it crucial to preserve a certain dramatic verisimilitude that opera-goers surely ignore on a daily basis?

Hasn’t a “willing suspension of disbelief” evolved into a cornerstone of the art form? Do sopranos resembling Middle-Eastern teenagers ever sing Salome? Shouldn’t Cherubino really be played by a man? Of course not, but unfortunately certain roles seem to up-end opera’s usual gender/age/color-indulgent casting expectations.

Just yesterday the Met posted photos from rehearsals for its upcoming revival of Madama Butterfly with Hui He in the title role. Is an Asian soprano inevitably thought of? If you scan the Met archive for performances by Yoko Watanabe or Liping Zhang you’ll discover that they sang only Cio-Cio-San and Liù. Surely audiences loved Martina Arroyo as “Madame Butterball” too!

After her success in the film Diva, did Wilhelmenia Fernandez have any business singing Aïda?  I wonder how many times Blue has already been offered that role. One doesn’t need to speculate about Thomas and Otello as he sang his first Moor in concert with the Atlanta Symphony earlier this month. But in a fascinating twist, the Desdemona, Iago and Lodovico in those performances were also African-American.

A friend of mine was in the Met children’s chorus for a gala performance of La Bohème that starred Montserrat Caballé and Luciano Pavarotti.  Even as a kid he only cared about their voices and was carried away by the visceral thrill of their singing and not distracted by their visual unsuitability.

My first-ever opera at the Met was Bohème during the initial season of the Zeffirelli production and in it a pale, frail Teresa Stratas in her last-ever Mimi was about as close to a physical/dramatic ideal as one has ever gotten in the hundreds of performances since. But Blue and Thomas, both in blooming good health still moved me tremendously.

Despite occasional moments of under-rehearsed routine, I enjoyed Monday’s revival and the Blue-Thomas pairing brought a special frisson to a tired yet still effective production I’ve now seen way too many times. It was “simply” Mimi and Rodolfo falling in love and breaking our hearts. They perform Bohème just once more this season on Friday.