Review: In Her Met Debut, a Conductor Leads a Fresh ‘La Bohème’

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Giacomo Puccini’s beloved “La Bohème,” with its lyrically rich and deftly written score, has the makings of a surefire opera. Yet the music is full of traps for a conductor, especially when it comes to pacing and rhythmic freedom; give singers too much expressive leeway, and things can easily turn flaccid.

Even in a good performance of this well-known staple, it’s hard for a conductor’s work to stand out against the singers’ voices, which usually claim our attention. But on Tuesday, when “Bohème” returned to the Metropolitan Opera — in Franco Zeffirelli’s enduringly popular production, and with an appealing cast in place — the star of the evening was the conductor, Eun Sun Kim, in her Met debut.

Last month, Kim made history at the San Francisco Opera as the first woman music director of a major American opera company. And at the Met this week, she did the job with musicianly care, assured technical command, subtlety and imagination. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard Puccini’s score so freshly played.

On one level, Kim’s achievement was all in the details. From the opening measures of Act I, set in a cramped garret shared by the story’s struggling artists, Kim took a vibrant tempo held just enough in check to allow for the crisp execution of dotted-note rhythmic figures, sputtering riffs and emphatic syncopations. In the playing she drew from the orchestra, which sounded alert and at its best, she teased out distinct thematic threads while letting skittish, colorful flourishes work their magic and then waft away.

Tuesday evening’s Rodolfo, the tenor Charles Castronovo, who sang with beefy sound and a touch of impetuousness, clearly likes to take ample time to deliver ardent melodic phrases. Kim gave him breathing room. Yet she showed that even while following a singer sensitively, a conductor can subtly nudge him along so a line does not go slack.

She was equally alert to the characteristics of Anita Hartig, as Mimì, a soprano whose bright voice, even when high-lying phrases had metallic glint, came across with tremulous, affecting vulnerability. Hartig brought a conversational flow to the aria “Mi chiamano Mimì,” stretching one phrase to express a bashful, intimate feeling and slightly rushing another to convey nervousness. Kim kept the orchestra with her every moment, and the entire scene around that aria — the awkward, nervous exchanges between Rodolfo and Mimì as they first meet — had shape and drive.

Kim’s way of conveying the structural elements of the score — which is not just a series of dramatic scenes but, in Puccini’s hand, a composition with an overall form — was just as important as her attention to details. Her work in Act III, the emotional core of the opera, was exceptionally fine. Mimì seeks out Rodolfo’s friend Marcello (the robust-voiced baritone Artur Rucinski) at the tavern where he and Musetta (Federica Lombardi, a vivacious soprano) are now living, to share her despair over Rodolfo’s constant jealousy. The singers were intense in their back and forth, but the long, arching melodic lines that hold this scene together are in the orchestra, and Kim brought them out with tautness and full-bodied sound.

The whole cast was strong, including the firm yet warm bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee as Colline and the youthful, spirited baritone Alexander Birch Elliott as Schaunard. There are 14 more performances of “Bohème” this season. The great news is that for all but four of them, Kim will be in the pit.

La Bohème

Through May 27 at the Metropolitan Opera, Manhattan; metopera.org.

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