New York — When the curtain rose on the second act of Franco Zeffirelli's new production of ''La Boheme'' at the Metropolitan Opera, the audience erupted in a roar of acclaim, amazement, and even disbelief - a roar that went on for nearly a minute.
Stage designer-director Zeffirelli has quite literally re-created a typical Montmartre hill street in Paris, circa 1840. Rarely has the Met stage been more brilliantly used. The set is on three levels, with Cafe Momus on the ''ground'' level receding back under the set. A huge staircase is on the audience's left, the chorus milling around above the indoor Momus, and there is another large staircase in the back right-hand corner of the set. By the end of the act, the audience had interrupted three more times with applause for the Zeffirelli spectacle - which culminated in a huge parade, bringing some 240 people onto the Met stage.
For those who think it too busy and overblown, imagine a Paris at Christmas with a mere handful of people on stage! The ''confusion'' Zeffirelli creates is masterfully controlled. And the rest of the production is equally magnificent. In Act III, the inn is a small ramshackle affair in the lower right-hand corner of another massive but stunning set.
Here, the street leading to the Parisian gate sweeps down, ramplike, from audience left to right. Figures on it are blurred by the misty-snowy atmosphere (thanks to an effective scrim), yet the playing center gives the principals plenty of room to retain focus down front, while framed by a breathtakingly beautiful tableau.
The Bohemians' garret is a cutaway attic, quite literally set on the stage rooftops of Paris, complete with tiles, smoking chimney pots - a cramped, impoverished abode for the quartet this story inhabits.
It is the finest 'Boheme' production this critic ever hopes to see, absolutely right for a house of this size and scope. Carpers will be quick to point out that the director has been doing variations on ''Boheme'' for nigh 20 years now. However, this production is a culmination, a climax - similar in intent to his famous La Scala production of the '60s, but staggeringly more complex, textured, naturalistic than its celebrated predecessor.
Peter J. Hall has amplified the Zeffirelli look with his exceptional costumes , and lighting designer Gil Wechsler has executed the director's vision with particular distinction. Zeffirelli has been away from the Met since he did ''Otello'' here superbly in 1971 far too long an absence. The Met has itself a ''Boheme'' it can be proud of for many years to come, which can be said for barely one of the 19th-century operatic productions John Dexter has put on that stage.
Even the orchestra seemed to respond to the overwhelming sense of ''event'' that enveloped the theater premiere night. It played handsomely under James Levine's adept, attentive, loving baton. He gave his singers all the room they needed, all the support, all the prodding. But the real problem with this ''Boheme'' is that it is a production in search of singers to do it justice.
Allan Monk, the Schaunard, was the only truly Met caliber singer on the stage , and when a Schaunard walks off with the vocal honors, one must seriously question what is going on in central casting. Teresa Stratas has always been an interesting actress, particularly when slinking around in tattered trench coats, but the voice was never meant to sing Puccini. A few good notes aside, her Mimi was neither vocally commendable, nor especially vulnerable, though the death scene proved most poignant.
Who ever would have thought that Jose Carreras would be in such alarming vocal estate at this still-early stage of his career? He singing was never subtle, but the tonal beauty and the ardent simplcity which were once his strong suit seem almost completely eroded now. Another decline is to be heard in Renata Scotto's Musetta. Though she plays the role with great conviction, she also brings out a harder character than her first memorable Met attempt in '77. Vocally, the ''Waltz'' was all evasion and stridency.
But in Act IV, her total performance was a model of operatic acting as it should always be, and never once did this artist ever get lost in the scenery the way many of her colleagues quite consistently did.
Marcello is usually given to the house's strongest lyric baritone. The Met offered Richard Stillwell, who can barely pass vocal muster in Donizetti. Histrionically, he was stagey rather than moving. Colline is played here as an unwashed, long-haired intellectual, and James Morris made much of the role, even if his famous aria was too intimate for so large a house.
When the Met finally gets around to casting the work properly, so that the players are framed by, not swamped by, the production, and if the house does not cut back on the quantity of extras for that superspectacular second act, this ''Boheme'' will be celebrated around the world as one of the grandest, most richly textured productions of an opera to be seen anywhere.