In a serious theater-goer’s life, there’s an infinitesimal amount of performances where, while the play is ongoing, one begins realizing that something extraordinary is being manifested on stage, transforming the entire energy in the hall. Grasping the significance of the moment, we stop following the performance per se and instead, we begin observing ourselves experiencing history in the making, convinced that, years on, we will be around to tell of this, to relay our impressions to future generations. Of all art forms, opera is the one most prone to such strong impressions.
The recent passing away of Mirella Freni brought back to my mind such an unforgettable evening at the Metropolitan Opera, about 32 years ago.
At some point in early 1988 I was informed that Carlos Kleiber, the great Austrian conductor, would be having his Metropolitan Opera debut.
When selecting operas, especially for landmark performances of their careers, conductors tend to go for rather ‘symphonic’ works such as Wagner, Strauss or Verdi grand opera (e.g. La Forza del Destino or Otello), works that pair the orchestra on the same level as great singers, thus giving them the opportunity to display their skill in the multi-layered reading of the complex musical score.
Yet, for such an important step in his path, maestro Kleiber went for an eccentric choice. Puccini’s La Bohème, is a most universally loved opera, characterized by a succession of all-time-favorite melodies. In fact, such is the popularity of the work, that it is widely relegated to ‘easy listening’ or, at best, as an ideal soloists’ showcase (with the orchestra considered as mere accompaniement). This misapprehension was further reinforced when, taking a quick look at the cast scheduled for this performance, two names stood out: Luciano Pavarotti (no comment!) and Mirella Freni.
One of the most respected singers of her time Miss Freni was also considered the best Mimi in the world. This title was conferred to her by no other than Herbert von Karajan who had conducted her La Bohème at La Scala about 25 years before in a Franco Zeffirelli production (the filming of which was to become, for a generation of filmmakers, the blueprint for how to film Italian opera).
Having selected to work with the two greatest interpreters of Rodolfo and Mimi in the world , Maestro Kleiber undertook a great risk for his debut. Pavarotti and Freni were world-acclaimed super stars who commanded huge fan clubs, and could easily overshadow the conductor’s presence during the performance (which would then prove lethal for the debut ). But Maestro Kleiber’s goal for his debut was to bring forth to New Yorkers and, by extension, to the world, the true musical value of La Bohème. And for this he wouldn’t have anything but the best!
Nevertheless, for the success of this project there was also a third and most challenging diva to be contended with. This would be the outstanding Zeffirelli production, which, already running for about seven years to unparalleled acclaim, had become the defining element of the identity of the Metropolitan Opera. It was this magical universe, which still today enchants MET audiences, that would serve as the visual extension of Carlos Kleiber’s New York debut. His task would be to fill it with his own music-making of Puccini in order to leave an unforgettable experience New York audiences.
The last bell had rung calling the audience to their seats.
Contacting my opera affecionado friends, Benjamin from France and Omar from Turkey, I got tickets. In a strange coincidence,we all flew into NY for the performance on the same day, the one from Paris, the other from Istanbul, myself from Athens. Jet- lagged out of our minds, we met by the Revlon fountain at the Lincoln Center Plaza and walked into the opera house.
As the house lights began dimming a few ‘bravos’ were heard from the front seats of the upper tiers. Patrons had spotted Maestro Kleiber entering the orchestra pit. For so many New Yorkers, the long-awaited moment of his Metropolitan Opera début had finally arrived. By the time the maestro climbed onto the podium the audience was greeting him with an ovation.
The maestro lifted his hand, the house curtain rose revealing the brilliant Franco Zeffirelli set of with a Luciano Pavarotti in his prime moving about his artist’s atelier. Then the famous knock came at the door and Mirella Freni entered the room. She sat next to him, listened to Pavarotti sing his heart-stopping aria and then moved on to her own monologue.
The hands of the maestro were waving about in space, unleashing musical phrases of untold beauty as Miss Freni’s voice would move along with them. It was as if one could visually see the embodied musical lines moving within the grandiose sets of Zeffirelli. Until, at a certain moment, the maestro’s gesture led the orchestra to an unresolved suspension ending in a long silent pause. This concluded the telling by Mimi of her drab, colorless life-story.
Just like a tsunami gathers momentum, withdrawing the waters before its wave refracts against the shore, so did the music gather and for an instant seemed to have ceased altogether as if stoping time. Then the maestro launched the orchestra into the second part of the aria, sounding the reversal of the dramatic situation with Miss Freni’s delicate voice unleashing the phrase « Ma quando vien lo sgelo » meaning: ‘BUT with the arrival of Spring everything changes’, turning within seconds this insignificant girl into the happiest creature on earth, who delights in the touch of every sunray playing upon her face. The poor little seamstress had tapped into the riches of the universe and the sickly young woman had begun radiating life. Positive energy had overtaken the premises, in the most incredible musical experience which monopolized our concentration, washing away our jet lag for the rest of the night.
How far ahead of today’s society, based on the Law of Attraction was maestro’s Kleiber La Boheme in 1988.
Then came the closing with the first act love-duett. As Miss Freni’s singing merged with that of Pavarotti we all became uplifted, floating on the music, as if traveling through the most wonderful living dream. One can only imagine at that moment the maestro’s excitement sensing the vindication of his opinion on the musical merits of La Bohème, as 3,800 people, with a transfixed expression of extasy on their faces seemed to be asking themselves and each other “When did Puccini compose all this extraordinary music?”.
As the couple left through the door singin their last love line ‘Amor’ on a high note and the curtain descended for the first interval, we just had to go for a drink. Instead, we sidetracked towards the foyer. Having reached the great curvy balustrade of the imposing Wallace Harrison marble staircase, we climbed over the shiny polished brass railing and, lying on our backs, slid down along its slanted slope, fully dressed in jacket and tie, feet in the air, giggling just like five-year-olds, adding to the overall wave of enthusiasm, to the dismay of a couple of ushers who did not dare to come in our direction for fear of spoiling the feeling of overall enjoyment. Mirella Freni had just defied gravity, so had we! And we were all looking forward to yet another three acts of great music making, coming up next.
Thirty two years on, the sounds of that evening still ring in my ears. To date, no other performance has pushed me into sliding down the great curved stairway again. However, because of that night, Benjamin and myself found a sentence for expressing the inexpressible. In the words of Miss Freni: ‘Ma quando vien lo sgelo’….
MICHAEL RADOU MOUSSOU
Is an opinion leader. The readership of his series of feature pieces called ‘Cultural Landmarks’ , which he contributed for the American Huffington Post , rose into the hundreds of thousands. So was his series « Real Estate and the City ». At present he lives in Athens Greece and is the CEO of Pateras Properties.