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Scenes from the life of Bohème


Below are my program notes for OR's imminent new production of Puccini's romantic opera. Their episodic and aphoristic style is a nod to Murger's original, among other influences (like Walter Benjamin, whose writings on Baudelaire and the Paris of the 19th century inform our current production. And yes, admittance into the Bohemian club requires sufficient artistic nerdiness.

Digna est intrari...)

Scenes from the life of La Bohème

Opera and Film

Referring to the classic 1945 French film, Children of Paradise by Marcel Carné, the critic Marcel Oms summarizes the director’s strengths in a description that could apply to Puccini and the generation of late 19th c. opera composers whose Wagnerian melodramas inspired the very art of cinema itself. Opera is, after all, the original “total work of art”:

"The greatest creators of cinema – and Carné is certainly among these – don’t hesitate to make melodramas, since that’s where the real popular essence of their art lies."

This is a textbook description of romantic opera. Puccini’s La Bohème has been one of the genre’s most popular, oft-imitated-yet-never-surpassed hits. Since its Feb. 1, 1896 premiere at the Teatro Regio in Turin, Puccini’s quartet of hungry and eager, ambitious and vulnerable artists have enlivened stages all over the world. The intoxicating “love music” of Rodolfo and Mimi, Musetta and Marcello has become synonymous with the lush, sweeping themes of passion and full-blooded emotion most audiences now associate with opera’s offspring, cinema.

Whose Bohème?

La Bohème prompted one of the theatre’s most notorious friendships-turned-rivalries. Our production nods to the most famous one-act in Italian opera by having our Parpignol resemble Pagliacco (or Pierrot), the commedia dell’arte mime at the heart of Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci. Puccini and Leoncavallo were friends and contemporaries who had recently achieved their first operatic successes in the 1890’s when Leoncavallo offered his own La Bohème libretto for Puccini’s consideration, which the prickly Tuscan apparently rejected outright. When Leoncavallo, after beginning work on setting his original libretto to music, learned Puccini was working on his own version he was furious. A media “frenzy” ensued between the two composer’s rival publishers and their respective weekly journals. Puccini’s retort to Leoncavallo’s claim for “the right” to premiere “his original” Bohème was typically matter-of-fact: “Let him compose, and I will compose, and the audience will judge.”

Confident in his voice following the breakthrough success of Manon Lescaut, Puccini’s new opera appeared a year before Leoncavallo’s. Ironically, the latter’s initial success, following its 1897 Venice premiere, overshadowed the that of Puccini’s opera, which took a couple of seasons to “gel” and then cement its hold in the repertoire. Leoncavallo’s burned brightly for a brief period but his Bohème has all but disappeared.

A brief history of Puccini and his time…

Comparing the trajectories of the careers of Leoncavallo (1857 – 1919) and Mascagni (1863 – 1945) to Puccini (1858 – 1924) is telling. The former each achieved early success greater than Puccini’s yet neither composer was able to follow those youthful hits with mature, repertory-entering masterworks. Puccini built on a series of successes and is unique among opera composers for the incredibly high percentage of his works which have remained repertory standards, while enjoying increasing critical acclaim. All but the first two have entered the standard repertory, even as a couple “lone wolves” stand apart. La Rondine is beloved for its one-hit wonder of a soprano aria, “Che il bel sogno di Doretta.” La Fanciulla del West is a cult favorite for many reasons, its Debussy-infused impressionist score being chief among them. Il Trittico, Puccini’s oft-separated trilogy of one-acts (including his only comedy, Gianni Schicchi) and Turandot are each masterworks, utterly Puccinian and yet unlike anything he’d previously attempted.

But it is his trilogy of heroine-driven melodramas, La Bohème, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly which define what has conventionally been known as the Puccini “style” or “sound.” This sound is dramatically paced and evocatively scored; it is driven by expressive, pictorial gestures and an inventive use of color and texture. Like impressionist painting, familiarity might breed contempt if we weren’t appreciating the sheer beauty of a masterwork by Monet. Like his older colleague, Verdi, Puccini was known for his romantic dramas rather than the situational comedies which the bel canto generation of composers favored. Like Mozart, Puccini allowed his vivacious wit to infuse the darkest dramas with light and verve.

I Scapigliatura Milanese | The Bohemians of Milan

Mascagni was Puccini’s roommate at the conservatory in Milan; some of their autobiographical stories serendipitously foreshadow episodes among the artists in La Bohème, like the Act 1 scene where the artists scam their landlord out of the rent. Most artists would be more familiar with Puccini’s real-life experience of having a landlord open a monthly scholarship allowance from the conservatory and deduct the rent directly, if not quite covertly. That scene in the opera could be called “Puccini’s revenge” when Benoit is charmed and conned. Among other research sources (like the classic film mentioned above), the original Murger novel is a series of alternately witty and romantic scenes with an undercurrent of empathy-inspiring melancholy. In one of the amusing scenes in the original, one of the artist’s patrons is conned out of his top-coat when he sits for a newly-commissioned portrait. We have included it in our staging, as a nod to Murger, whose story has inspired over 15 films. The following quotes are from one of our favorites among them.

Movie night: La Vie de Bohème (Aki Kaurismäki, 1992)

"The details of [the film’s] setting and plot have been worn transparent from passing through so many hands over so many years: the garrets, the quest for inspiration, the pawning of possessions, the commodity value of the black frock coat, the knell that sounds as a slight tubercular cough…"

"He [the Finnish film auteur, Kaurismäki] fully subscribes to his characters, from their largest ambitions to their smallest crotchets… but their humor is earned by grief. We don’t laugh at anyone’s expense; we laugh because we’ve been there. All this permits him to treat Murger’s story in completely straightforward fashion, without irony or superciliousness…"

Our Puccini-era, Toulouse-Lautrec-inspired production draws on other details from the original, as well as drawing from the large bodies of literature and music, art and cinema since the dawn of the 20th century and forward. On a wall in Puccini’s Torre del Lago villa, around the corner from the famed piano and the composer’s equally famous hunting rifles, there is a framed letter which reads, “Men die and governments change, but the melodies of La Bohème will live forever. Thomas Edison was an opera lover and apparently an unabashed Puccini fan. Opera has always kept some good company. Talking again through film, we close with what sums up the opera:

"It [La Vie de Bohème] is concerned with the struggle for love and wherewithal, that is, and it treasures people for their failings as much as their strengths. It is sad and funny, sometimes in the same instant. It is calm and intermittently manic, drunken and cold sober, romantic and realistic. It brims over with soul. It stands as a rebuke to the many kinds of imposture that try to pass themselves off…It is radically and unapologetically human." (Luc Sante)


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