Perhaps it was the presence on the night of original director Franco Zeffirelli, who was honored on stage after the Act II spectacle for which he's now best known. I don't know whether he worked on the show's rehearsals, but both cast and audience seemed very pleased to have him take a bow. Current Met GM Peter Gelb -- with Joe Volpe standing behind him! -- noted Zef's remarkably long association with the company (his first production was in 1964 at the Old Met) and described a pair of memorial plaques just installed inside the proscenium. Zeffirelli gave a short speech of thanks, first thanking Sybil (aka "Mrs. Donald D.") Harrington before singling out Pavarotti, Carlos Kleiber, and Mirella Freni for their work in this Boheme, and then thanking the technical staff of the Met for making his productions work. He shook hands with the singers from past productions who had come to help honor him. Audience reception was very, very warm.
Or perhaps it was conductor Nicola Luisotti. Never having heard him, I was almost shocked to hear the sounds coming from the pit from the opera's very beginning. Textures were clear, each of Puccini's instrumental touches were sounded with individual life, and everything felt of a piece. It's very, very difficult to mess up Boheme with this orchestra, but drawing out sound like this still shows far-above-routinier talent. Beyond basic sound, he shapes the music unstintingly, making the sort of grand (and small) expressive gestures of tempo and breath that would be disastrous if they weren't so successful. His sense of the opera's dramatic flow was remarkable, and his extremely entertaining body language grew bigger and clearer at each deviation from the straightforward. It seems Luisotti's soon taking over at San Francisco Opera: they should be very happy.
Or perhaps it was excellent casting. Debutant Quinn Kelsey showed a serious, serious baritone that should soon be everywhere in more heavyweight stuff than Schaunard. (Incidentally, he had quite the audible cheering section -- but definitely deserved one.) But he, Ludovic Tezier (Marcello), and Owen Gradus (Colline) had the natural sonic and dramatic chemistry the the bohemians should. And Ramon Vargas, who was fairly forgettable as Rodolfo five years ago, sings this time more in the vein of last season's Onegin triumph: so earnest it almost hurts (though not quite to Polenzani levels), each word used well, and musically -- particularly after all the (mind you, not entirely unpleasant) tenor shouting I've heard these last weeks -- pure bel canto pleasure for the ear.
So a great, not-to-be-missed Boheme, right? Well, yes -- if you don't mind that the Musetta is singing Mimi. Angela Gheorghiu is beautiful and has the star quality that keeps one's eyes on her, but what one sees is pretty much the opposite of the self-effacing grace that should be at least a major element of this heroine's makeup. As beautifully and with as much interpretive insight as she can deliver Act III's "Donde lieta" (her "Mi chiamano Mimi" in Act I barely even tried to carry over the not-overpowering orchestra), Gheorghiu, with her visible and demonstrative acting style, remains wholly unbelievable as the crafty, unaffected woman to whom Musetta of the loud antics is supposed to contrast. It seemed (perhaps unfairly) indicative when Gheorghiu jumped next to Zeffirelli during his honors, elbowing in and taking his hand for the photo-ops as if she were the #2 honoree and more important than all the aforementioned stalwarts of old who had premiered Zef's Met productions, and as if this sort of nonsense had never happened. (The rest of the evening's cast stayed where they started, on the other side of Zeffirelli behind the GMs.) A stunt like this is, like her formerly incessant applause-milking (thankfully absent last night), actually sort of amusing, but shows a character about as far from Mimi's as one can get. Gheorghiu is a good actress -- and don't get me wrong, I think she conveyed, for example, Mimi's physical vulnerability very well -- but not that good.
If Musetta is singing Mimi, the reverse is also sort of true. Ainhoa Arteta is good as Musetta and sings it often at the Met, but before this bohemian became the only thing for which the company seems interested in hiring her, Arteta was also the most honestly and emotionally communicative Violetta on the Met roster. I didn't see the one and only Mimi she sang here, back in 1994 -- perhaps the voice doesn't fit. But the character? Better than on Gheorghiu, surely.
That said, I'm not quite comfortable advising everyone to wait for next season, when Maija Kovalevska (good in her Met debut run as Mimi, and terrific recently as Micaela) and Susanna Phillips are the female stars. Despite the miscasting of Gheorghiu, the whole show really works here. And Luisotti is exceptionally good: I don't remember next season's conductor, Frederic Chaslin, ever having been particularly interesting. And, of course, Gheorghiu does her business well, if not particularly fittingly.
Some posts on performances before this one (including the last Tristan) should follow in the next days.