If you go to “La Bohème” at the Metropolitan Opera this season and are convinced that the big snowdrift in Act III looks a little fresher than usual, you’re not hallucinating.
A million-dollar gift from a board member recently paid for the company to rebuild some of the sets for Franco Zeffirelli’s deathless 1981 production of Puccini’s classic, and the snow that dominates a wintry scene on the outskirts of Paris was one of the targets. It now looks more newly fallen — though the seam between the set piece and the stage floor was gapingly obvious from the orchestra level on Saturday evening.
Some whiter snow was the news of this “Bohème” — alongside an unusually assertive, stylish Schaunard from the young baritone Sean Michael Plumb, in a small part that often fades into Zeffirelli’s teeming backgrounds.
Federica Lombardi’s focused soprano created a Mimì more forthright, even indignant, than the norm, making her fatal Act IV more tender by comparison. The bass-baritone Christian Van Horn sang a soberly resonant “Vecchia zimmara,” and the soprano Olga Kulchynska was a bright Musetta. As Rodolfo, the veteran tenor Matthew Polenzani pushed his voice out at climaxes but otherwise often sounded faded, and a few hairs flat.
The sets for David Alden’s 2012 Met staging of Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” have not been rebuilt — but, only 11 years old, they sometimes seemed shakily resistant to being moved when the opera was revived on Friday.
Here, the cast was the exciting part, at least by the end of the evening. The performance seemed to settle in as it went on, with the tenor Charles Castronovo’s tone as Gustavo — pale for much of the opera — finally taking on more color, fullness and freedom.
And after an uncertain beginning, the soprano Angela Meade delivered a memorable Amelia. Her sound is essentially cool, but it got fuller and more inflamed as the weird, tragic plot developed, ending up lean yet glowing, like a red-hot poker.
One singer required no warming up: the baritone Quinn Kelsey, who seems ever more a pillar of the Met, particularly in Verdi. “Ballo” is the story of a Swedish king, Gustavo, who is in love with Amelia, the wife of his closest friend — and Kelsey plays Renato, the agonized friend who goes from Gustavo’s confidant to his assassin.
His presence hulking and brooding, Kelsey has that most special of operatic attributes: an instantly recognizable voice, capacious and moody, with a smoky, slightly nasal, sneering, sinister edge but also a fundamental seductive smoothness and nuanced eloquence.
His and Meade’s back-to-back arias in the third act — her plea “Morrò, ma prima in grazia” into his wounded “Eri tu” — were together the musical highlight on Friday. The mezzo-soprano Olesya Petrova sang Ulrica with steady power, and the soprano Liv Redpath sounded lucid and gentle as the sprightly page Oscar. Carlo Rizzi, one of the Met’s often underappreciated maestros in the Italian repertoire, conducted both “Ballo” (with steady drive) and “Bohème” (with sumptuous clarity).
“Ballo,” which premiered in 1859, is from the period after Verdi’s canonical trio of “Rigoletto,” “Il Trovatore” and “La Traviata,” and before his late-stage epics “Don Carlos” and “Aida.” In this middle period — think also of “Les Vêpres Siciliennes” and “La Forza del Destino,” which the Met is presenting in a new production this winter — he experimented with shades of emotional ambiguity and sometimes jarring juxtapositions of tone.
In “Ballo,” he combined elements of Italianate melodrama and champagne-bubbly French high spirits in a mixture that can be excitingly volatile. Alden’s staging is a kind of stylized, largely grayscale Art Deco explosion, with a degree of strange excess intended to echo the piece’s own — like a Busby Berkeley production number at the end of the first scene, complete with dancing waiters; and, in Act II, a conspirator frantically hurling himself against a wall.
With severely raked sets, sickly floodlighting and surreal touches like skull masks and angel wings, Alden suggests that much of the opera is Gustavo’s fever dream, or fantasy. But the eerie elegance of some moments diffuses elsewhere into some awkwardness, with the chorus milling around. When it premiered, the production seemed like its many ideas hadn’t yet gelled. They still haven’t.