Carlos Kleiber has built a career on musically stunning performances while, at the same time, achieving notoriety for his eccentric behavior. So when it was announced that he would be making his Metropolitan Opera debut conducting Puccini's ``La Boh`eme,'' there was at least a possibility that he would not show up. (He had stormed out of a La Scala recording session of ``Boh`eme'' with the opera only half complete.) But he did show up, and the performance I heard (Jan. 25) was one I'll never forget. (The last of five performances will be given Saturday night.)
Not since Herbert von Karajan's four concerts with the Berlin Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall have I witnessed such conducting. Hackneyed old ``Boh`eme'' unfolded as if it had never been heard before - a score alive with youth, vigor, beauty, pathos, and tragedy. Kleiber, whose father, Erich, set high standards before his premature death in the mid-'50s, conducted the opera with incredible care and attention to detail, and with a complete absorption in the musical idiom.
Despite all the work to achieve these ends (his demands for rehearsal time are legendary), the performance never sounded calculated or manufactured but, rather, spontaneous and utterly at one with the singers. Kleiber does not call attention to himself, unless one considers this sort of remarkable conducting attention-getting in the best sense of the word. Rather, he was there to serve the opera by means of orchestra and singers.
The Met orchestra played with a consistent finesse, nuance, and sheen that have not been heard in many a year. The musicians clearly were spellbound by this maestro and were committed to proving themselves capable of doing his meticulous, demanding bidding. If space permitted, I would cite as many of Kleiber's specific insights as I could. But as I think of the evening, I keep coming back to the one aspect that clearly made this the stuff of genius: the conductor's uncanny sense of balances.
At no point were the singers overpowered by the pit, but their voices were coddled and lovingly cushioned by this exceptional sound. Kleiber understands - the way only a true master can - the difference between a loud, brassy climactic noise and a full, rich, strong, yet controlled tone. Every emotional and dramatic moment was subtly etched, and he knew exactly which moments had to stand out to truly affect the listener.
What this all meant was that Luciano Pavarotti and Mirella Freni, the Rodolfo and Mimi of the performance, never had to push. In fact, Pavarotti has not sounded so voluminous of tone in the past five years in this theater, because this time he was not pushing to be heard over a too-loud orchestra.
Together these two great veterans gave the sort of performance that made it clear why Kleiber would not have come to New York without them. And though neither voice is in its prime, one should note that these artists have added a deepened insight to their roles. The fragile simplicity of Freni's seamstress and the ardent candor of Pavarotti's poet projected with telling impact.
Around these singers was a somewhat uneven supporting cast. On the one hand, there was Barbara Daniels's live-wire Musetta, and Thomas Hampson's committed Schaunard, but on the other, Jonathan Summer's vocally erratic Marcello, and Gwynne Howells's hard-to-hear Colline. Yet somehow, they all cavorted well together, so that one was rarely distracted by shortcomings, all the while appreciating the assets of the best cast members.
It must also be noted that the Franco Zeffirelli production was finally given the cast it has been begging for since it was unwrapped in 1981. No one was ever lost on, or overpowered by, the scenery. Each had his or her moment to take the spotlight and shine, and then step back into the enthusiastic ensemble.
The Met proves, with Kleiber's debut appearances, that it is capable of rising to the very highest operatic standards. No one expects this level of performance on a nightly basis. And there are but a handful of conductors who can actually achieve such results.
But Kleiber's ``Boh`eme'' proves that great performances begin as much in the pit as on stage, and that the general level of conducting at the Met has got to be improved.
Audiences do notice the difference: Kleiber's ovations were as big as Pavarotti's. It goes without saying that his return will be anticipated and welcomed by public and press alike.
For, once having sampled this level of achievement, it only whets the appetite for more excellence.