Director Franco Zeffirelli returns to the Met this month for the revival of his production of La Bohme, starring Angela Gheorghiu and Ram‹n Vargas. First seen in 1981, it remains one of the most beloved stagings in Met history. Gheorghiu recently worked with the director on a signature production of La Traviata in Rome. "I consider Franco's work to be the highest level in opera, theater, and cinema," she says. "He has a profound respect for his colleagues, for the interpreters, for the authors and composers." Zeffirelli, who will be honored for his unparalleled decades-long career with a tribute presented by the Metropolitan Opera Guild on March 31, talked to the Met's Philipp Brieler about filming opera, respecting Puccini, and the "irresistible fire" of La Bohme.
When you first created this production, did you expect it to become such a hit?
I think I did. At that moment in my life I was so lucky, the most beautiful things were happening to me. I was finally able to touch the great master- pieces that I'd always worshipped. I had already been a professional for 20 years, but strangely, for me, it really started with a film, with Romeo and Juliet [in 1968]. In those years I was beginning to get ready for the big challenges in cinema. And when I came back to opera I had found another outlook, a new approach to the masterpieces. Those times were so rich for me, and from that moment what I call the "golden years" started.
What is it that makes La Bohme such an enduringly powerful opera?
It's simply magical, enchanting. It's a lovely, simple story, and Puccini's music blows on it and makes it come to life. He's a sorcerer, you can't fool around with him, you have to serve him faithfully. I remember when I first did Tosca, one of my first operas. I was coming from straight theater and was so excited about the way Puccini had already written down the direction of the piece that I asked them to put on the poster, "music, book and direction by Giacomo Puccini, with the assistance of Franco Zeffirelli for the sets." Puccini's music has such an extraordi- nary, convincing, irresistible fire that you cannot go wrong if you respect him completely. That's true for Tosca, and it's true for La Bohme. With all due respect for other composers, some of whom were of superior stature in terms of grand music: in terms of musical theater there has never been, and I'm afraid there will never be, another Puccini.
Angela Gheorghiu made her Met debut in this production in 1993, but she hasn't appeared in it for 12 years. It's a return for both of you.
Angela is a special artist. I like that kind of artist: you never know exactly what they're going to do that night. They leave us dangling. I'm very curious because I've never worked with her in this role. I'm sure she will do something extraordinary, something surprising and completely different from all the other Mimi's I've had in this production.
For the second act, you created one of the most spectacular sets in the Met's repertoire. Do you remember putting it on stage for the first time?
Yes, and I saw how right the idea was. I'm proud of it, and I like to imagine, perhaps a little arrogantly, that if Puccini were alive to see it, he would like it.
The performance on April 5 will be transmitted to movie theaters around the world as part of the Met's Live in HD series. You turned La Traviata and Otello into two very successful movies in the eighties.
Many of my productions have been taped, the way they're performed on stage. But filming opera is a completely different art. It's two arts put together to create something different and unique. All the muses are joining hands to make an opera performance happen: music, dance, singing, drama, scenery, philosophy, poetry: it's a complete planet of art. I think a filmed opera, if it's very well done, is the best thing you can ever see in the performing arts.
La Bohme opens March 29 and runs through April 18. The April 5 performance will be transmitted live in HD to movie theaters around the world.