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Netrebko, Beczala a winning couple in 'La Boheme'

NEW YORK — Anna Netrebko keeps getting better and better.

On Saturday night, the Russian soprano began an extended run as Mimi in the Metropolitan Opera's revival of Puccini's "La Boheme," after having appeared in a solitary performance of it in December 2006. With Polish tenor Piotr Beczala singing his first Met Rodolfo and superior casting in some supporting roles, it was an exemplary rendition of a repertory staple that often is routinely cast.

Now 38, Netrebko is just entering what should be her vocal prime. While not as known as her Violetta, her Mimi is becoming more familiar following the release of a movie in which she lip-synched to a soundtrack of her 2008 recording.

With an expressive face and big, brown eyes, she is vulnerable and tender when she enters Rodolfo's garret on Christmas Eve. Her color-filled voice soars and commands the vast house for "Mi chiamano Mimi (They call me Mimi)" as the poet — and the audience — fall for her.

Beczala, a rising 43-year-old, has a precise and shimmering tenor that he manipulates impressively with inflection, and his boyish looks gave Rodolfo an all-too-seldom age appropriateness. His is neither the biggest nor warmest sound, but it is a winning and appealing one all the way to the top notes.

Netrebko and Beczala are scheduled to sing together again at this summer's Salzburg Festival in Austria, in a revival of the staging of Gounod's "Romeo et Juliette" that she withdrew from during her pregnancy leave two years ago.

Baritone Gerald Finley was an uncommonly touching Marcello and bass-baritone Shenyang, winner of the 2007 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, gave a moving and mellifluous "Vecchia zimarra (Old coat)," Colline's fourth-act aria as Mimi's death nears, a short moment that stood out. Baritone Massimo Cavalletti, making his Met debut as Schaunard, sang strongly in the small role. Paul Plishka was entertaining as the bumbling landlord Benoit and Alcindoro, the old man accompanying Musetta to the Cafe Momus.

Soprano Nicole Cabell's Musetta was somewhat bland in voice and acting. The biggest puzzle of the night was the conducting of Marco Armiliato. He tried to stretch sounds in search of beauty, but his tempi at key points was so slow that singers couldn't sustain notes long enough. It caused a slight disconnect between the orchestra and the stage.

With Netrebko and Beczala commanding attention, Franco Zeffirelli's 1981 production did not seem as oversized as usual, with nuances in singing and acting coming through. Applause greeted the large-as-life if not grander Cafe Momus — a stark contrast to the boos that greeted the production team of Luc Bondy's opening-night "Tosca," which replaced Zeffirelli's 1985 production of that Puccini opera.

There are eight more performances through March 20, with next Saturday's broadcast on radio.

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