Placido Domingo was roundly and vociferously booed at the Metropolitan Opera House on Tuesday evening.
Take a moment to let that statement sink in.
The occasion was the one and only appearance of Anna Netrebko as Mimi in the Met's current run of Giacomo Puccini's "La Bohème."
How does a single superstar turn affect the performance of an otherwise run-of-the-mill production? Let me count the ways.
There was a palpable buzz on Lincoln Center Plaza before the curtain went up. The house had been sold out for months, and considerable scalping activity was going on across the street. Anyone who was anyone in the critical world was in attendance. The energy level of the first scene, sans Ms. Netrebko, was at Mach 5 compared with the rather sluggish opening night. And tenor Rolando Villazón, a frequent partner of the electric soprano, sounded great right from the beginning — during the first performance, he took most of this opening scene to warm up.
Of course the main difference was Ms. Netrebko's performance. She entered that garret the consummate actress, already sick and vulnerable, establishing an almost excruciating morbidezza from the get-go. Her voice was its usual radiant self, full, warm, polished, dexterous, enticing, enriching. Her initial note alone in the culminating duet of O soave fanciulla was worth the price of admission.
Ms. Netrebko was splendid throughout, her Donde lieta usci from Act III producing paroxysms of applause. And this woman really knows how to die. Her voice, enduringly strong even on her deathbed, simply became more and more gentle as her seconds ticked away. Not weaker, not softer, not wobbly, just more gentle until it suddenly stopped and her clenched fist opened and fell. Masterful.
So why the booing during such a wonderful effort? Mr. Domingo's conducting had been the weakest link in the initial performance, and this evening brought his faults to the fore. During Act I, Ms. Netrebko let loose in the Mi chiamano Mimi section, expanding and elongating her phrases to their most delicious and emotionally intense lengths. She did not so much intone these phrases as caress them. In order to fully realize her artistic vision, she allowed each phrase to develop organically, unhurriedly, employing tasteful rubato and holding high notes expertly and impressively. But Mr. Domingo trudged along inattentively at metronomic speed, running noticeably ahead of his diva. As a singer himself, Mr. Domingo should be especially sensitive to poetic and expressive license, but he certainly was deaf to it this night. Ms. Netrebko, however, refused to bend, continuing to fashion her complex and beautifully spun web of gold until Mr. Domingo finally seemed to awaken and allow his orchestra to follow her. By the end of the aria, it was clear the profound leadership was coming not from the pit but from the stage.
And thus the booing. When Mr. Domingo came out for his bow at the beginning of Act Three, the lusty response from the upper reaches of the house was raucously negative. Visibly shaken, he turned to give his first downbeat.
There was another significant cast change since the premiere, as the Met hired another Russian, Anna Samuil, to fill in as Musetta. She did a fine job with Musetta's Waltz — for many of us the highlight of the show — enunciating it as an exotic showpiece complete with generous rubato and a whipcrack of a transitional accent. Singers do not usually invest quite so much angularity on this haunting melody. In fact Peter Coleman-Wright as Marcello sings it much more straightforwardly in the reprise. But Ms. Samuil's instincts are correct: This little gem of a set piece, one of Puccini's most memorable, is meant to be strikingly unusual.
She also held her own in the powerful Addio, dolce svegliare quartet, no easy task when asked to sing at the same time as Ms. Netrebko.
This "Bohème"has had troubles from the beginning. Susannah Glanville, hired as Musetta, never appeared after the dress rehearsal and was replaced at the premiere by a radiant Patricia Racette doing a one-shot star turn. Cristina Gallardo-Domâs, whose disappointing Cio-Cio-San on opening night exposed the soft underbelly of Mr. Gelb's philosophy emphasizing productions over vocal quality, was supposed to have been the new Mimi after Ms. Netrebko, but Ms. Gallardo-Domâs has now mysteriously disappeared for December without mounting even one performance. Perhaps the newest member of the "Bohème" cast to become "indisposed" will now be the conductor.
Until February 3 (Lincoln Center, 212-721-6500).