La Bohème by Giacomo Puccini, February, 2018

LA BOHÈME Keynotes Newsletter

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Bohemia: A State of the Heart

Unlike many of Puccini's operas, La Bohème is named not for a girl, but for an almost mythical place – a time of life, a state of the heart.

It's a sparkling portrayal of the Bohemian life – la vie de Bohème – that free-spirited, romantic counterculture of starving artists in freezing garrets, meeting life with plucky camaraderie, youthful derring-do, plenty of love-making and heartbreak – and occasionally some work on their art.

The opera opens on a freezing Christmas Eve in Paris. Marcello, a painter, and Rodolfo, a poet, burn one of Rodolfo's plays to keep warm. Colline, a philosopher, and Schaunard, a musician, turn up. Schaunard has some money from a gig and brings food, wine, and enough cash for a celebration at the lively Café Momus, where they inevitably run into Marcello's on-again, off-again, girlfriend, the coquettish Musetta.

Meanwhile, Rodolfo meets the frail seamstress Mimi, and they fall passionately in love. But their tender romance is doomed, for Mimi is ill with consumption, and Rodolfo is too poor to help her.

We follow the lives of these young people as they struggle to make ends meet, flirt, fall in love, and break up – until the end, when the friends gather round to take care of the dying Mimi.

It is such a slight story. The characters are ordinary, unimportant.

Critic Spike Hughes has said:

Until the appearance of La Bohème the public's experience of Love on the opera stage had been of a somewhat lofty emotion of more than life-size dimensions and usually with consequences which (keeping their fingers crossed) the public could reasonably regard as unlikely to apply to them ... But with La Bohème they were introduced for the first time to a world with which they were familiar ... The action ... was more than something that could have happened: most of it actually had happened, not only in the life of Henri Murger, but a great deal of it also in the life of the composer who set Murger's novel to music.

The opera is taken from Henri Murger's Scènes de la vie de bohème, a semi-autobiographical novel about life in the Latin Quarter of Paris during the 1840s. Murger (1822 - 1861) was still in his 20s when he began to write a succession of satirical sketches based on his own experiences and serialized in an obscure magazine called Le Corsaire.

In 1849 he joined forces with a young dramatist, Théodore Barrière, to develop the stories into a play, La Vie de bohème, which became a surprise hit. Murger then collected the stories, framing them with a prefatory exposé on the various classes of bohemians and a final chapter on life after the death of Mimi, and publishing them in 1851 as a novel. The proceeds allowed Murger to finally give up the Bohemian life and move into a nice bourgeois apartment.

As classical radio host Dyana Neal comments:

Yes, the world's most famous Bohemian abandoned his unheated garret, and had probably been aspiring to do so for years ... For Murger and his contemporaries, Bohemia was merely a stop on the journey to a financially lucrative career, perhaps in the arts, perhaps not....

Murger continued to write until his death at the age of 38, but none of his subsequent works achieved the fame of Scènes de la vie de bohème.

A half century later, Puccini latched onto Murger's work to create La Bohème, which is based partly on the novel, partly on the play.

Puccini poured into the opera some of his own memories of student days in Milan, when he shared a room with a baker's son named Pietro Mascagni (yes, that Mascagni, composer of Cavalleria Rusticana), and they pooled their pennies to buy the score of Parsifal, cooked beans in the only pot available – their washbasin – and marked a city map with areas to avoid because they might run into creditors. Like Colline in the opera, Puccini even pawned his coat at one point (not to help a dying friend, but, in Spike Hughes' words, to take a young ballerina with an unreasonable appetite out to dinner).

Murger's characters are recognizable composites of his various friends – artists, philsophers, writers – some of whom, too broke to afford wine, called themselves The Water Drinkers.

Puccini's Mimi is drawn from two characters in Murger's novel, both of whom die of consumption – Francine, a seamstress, and Mademoiselle Mimi, a fickle, materialistic flirt who is an amalgamation of several of Murger's mistresses. The Mimi that Murger describes is very unlike Puccini's angelic, soft-focus heroine:

Rodolphe then met Mimi, whom he had formerly known when she was the mistress of one of his friends ... Mademoiselle Mimi was very taking, not at all prudish, and could stand tobacco smoke and literary conversations without a headache...
At the end of a month Rodolphe began to perceive that he was wedded to a thunderstorm, and that his mistress had one great fault. She was a "gadabout," as they say, and spent a great part of her time amongst the kept women of the neighborhood.

The unnamed author of an introduction to the 1883 English edition of the novel was more direct, calling Mimi a shameless little hussy.

The character of Rodolphe in Scènes is a disarmingly frank self-portrait of Murger. Like Rodolfo in the opera, Roldolphe/Murger wrote for a hatmakers journal, Le Castor (The Beaver).

Unlike the romantic youth in the opera, Murger's Rodolphe is prematurely bald and sports a combover. Murger describes him as a young man whose face could barely be seen for a huge bush of multicoloured beard. As an antithesis to this abundance of hair on his chin, early baldness had stripped his forehead, which looked like a knee, and a few hairs, so scanty that one could have counted them, tried in vain to hide the nakedness.

Murger's novel is thoroughly entertaining, especially if we are familiar with the opera. It brims with cynical, trenchant observations on the folly and charm of these characters.

In his preface Murger wrote, Bohemia is a stage in artistic life; it is the preface to the Academy, the Hôtel Dieu, or the Morgue. Eventually, like Murger, most of his characters make their escape into the next stage of life – respectability.

Colline inherits money, marries a rich woman and devotes his attention to giving soirées and eating cake. Schaunard becomes a successful writer of popular songs. Marcello lands an exhibit of his paintings, sells one to an ex-lover of Musetta's, and moves to a better apartment. Rodolfo publishes his first book and launches a writing career. Even Musetta, the freest spirit of them all, after one last week of drinking, dancing, and lovemaking, marries a postmaster.

As Dyana Neal observes

Some live the carefree, financially precarious Bohemian life well into middle age, but most of us, like Murger, reach a point where poverty no longer seems quite so romantic. In a well-heated living room, the modern lapsed Bohemian can read Scènes de la vie de Bohème while curled up on a plush couch, sipping a fine Shiraz. Henri Murger wouldn't have had it any other way.

Maureen Woodall


Puccini's Most Nearly Perfect Opera

Spike Hughes said La Bohème is perhaps Puccini's most nearly perfect opera. It is also one of the most popular operas of all time, maintaining a consistent place somewhere around #2 in the hit chart of most-performed operas – despite a rather shaky start.

When La Bohème premiered at Turin's Teatro Regio in February 1896, under the baton of the very young Arturo Toscanini, the audience, though warm, was not as delirious as they had been over Puccini's previous opera, the mega-hit Manon Lescaut.

The critics were even less kind. Carlo Bersezio of La Stampa lectured in words that live on as a notorious example of a critic getting it completely wrong:

Just as La Bohème makes little impression on the hearts of its audience, it will leave no great mark on the history of Italian opera; and it would be a good thing if the composer, considering it a momentary error, will return to his proper path, persuading himself that this has been a brief detour in the road of art.

La Bohème was also a victim of unfortunate timing. Just weeks earlier, Turin's operagoers had seen Toscanini conduct the Italian première of Wagner's Götterdämmerung, a work at the opposite end of the operatic spectrum from Puccini's little slice of life. In terms of musical texture, scale, subject matter, plot – even length – Götterdämmerung was a different animal. The Wagnerian behemoth made it almost impossible for anyone to judge La Bohème on its own merits.

Fresh from the vision of Valhalla in flames and the gods destroyed, audiences were now asked to watch unimportant people making a living, going out with friends, shopping, paying the rent, and agonizing over an insignificant life snuffed out by a grubby little disease!

The librettists, Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, were the dream team brought in by Puccini's publisher, Giulio Ricordi, to rescue Puccini's Manon Lescaut after Puccini had torn through three other librettists. Giacosa, Illica, and Puccini went on to form the most successful composer/librettist team of Puccini's career, working together on the great trio of La Bohème, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly.

However, Puccini was maddening to work with and impossible to satisfy, meaning his librettists frequently threated to quit. Much of the credit for Bohème's existence must therefore go to Ricordi, a masterful diplomat and babysitter. It was Ricordi who perceived Puccini's talent early, took him under his wing, and cajoled him into focusing on his work instead of women, cars, and hunting. And it was Ricordi, a master of shuttle diplomacy, who regularly soothed Puccini's browbeaten librettists.

But what makes La Bohème completely irresistible, whether we are just discovering it, or coming back to it after uncounted times of hearing it, is its music.

By the time the first act ends with that string of glorious love songs: Rodolfo's Che gelida manina, Mimi's Sì, mi chiamano Mimì, and the rapturous duet O soave fanciulla, one would think that surely the composer has shot his bolt. There cannot possibly be room for any more musical wonder in this opera.

But there is – the exuberant kaleidoscope of the second act Café Momus scene, Musetta's provocative waltz, Quando m'en vò, the wintry radiance and looming tragedy of act 3, the poignant simplicity of Mimi's gentle farewell Addio, senza rancore, Colline's farewell to his overcoat as he goes to pawn it (Vecchia zimarra), and the final haunting echoes of those first love themes.

The music of La Bohème beguiles us with its jollity, illuminates the commonplace moments of daily life, and sweeps us away with its passion. It sparkles with humour and charm, pours out lush, sumptuous melodies, and is by turns merry, tender, desperate, haunting, and unforgettably beautiful.

The result, according to music critic Michael Steinberg, is a wonderfully original opera, something the extreme familiarity of La Bohème can keep us from noticing and appreciating ... La Bohème, in which Puccini came truly of age as an artist (at 37!), is a masterwork we too easily take for granted ... a song about the frailty of love and happiness.

Maureen Woodall


Meet the Artists of La Bohème

POV's Artistic Director Timothy Vernon has assembled an exciting cast and creative team for La Bohème. Nearly all are old friends of POV.

Wearing the two hats of chorus master and conductor, Giuseppe Pietraroia knows his Puccini well, having conducted this opera for POV and Opéra de Montréal – as well as POV's Manon Lescaut in 2006, Madama Butterfly for POV and Opéra de Québec, and Tosca for POV and Opera New Brunswick.

Maestro Pietraroia will direct our wonderful musical partners, the POV Chorus and the Victoria Symphony. An additional highlight will be the participation of the Victoria Children's Choir. Founded in 2001 by Artistic Director Madeleine Humer, the VCC is considered one of Canada's leading children's choirs and performs regionally, across Canada, abroad – and on POV's opera stage!

Director Maria Lamont created a thoughtful, fascinating production of Maria Stuarda that was staged at POV in 2012 and at Edmonton Opera in 2016. Maria has been an assistant and a revival director for opera companies world-wide, including La Scala, La Monnaie, Brussels, and Theater an der Wien. She recently directed Janáček's Kát'a Kabanová for Teatro Regio di Torino and The Cunning Little Vixen for Opéra National du Rhin.

Camellia Koo designed POV's Maria Stuarda as well as our gorgeous 2016 staging of Simon Boccanegra. She has designed for theatres across Canada, including the Shaw and Stratford Festivals, and for opera productions with Helikon Opera, Moscow, Minnesota Opera, Edmonton Opera, Boston Lyric Opera, Against the Grain, and Tapestry New Opera.

Kevin Lamotte, Director of Lighting Design for the Shaw Festival, rejoins us for his sixth POV production; he was with us most recently for Das Rheingold and Simon Boccanegra. New to us is choreographer Jessica Hickman, who has worked with many Vancouver Island theatre companies.

We celebrate the return of Lucia Cesaroni as she sings Mimi for the first time. An alumna of our 2009 Resident Artist Program, Lucia debuted with us as First Lady in The Magic Flute, then returned as a splendid, warm-hearted Anne Trulove in The Rake's Progress and then as the scintillating Rheinmaiden Woglinde in Das Rheingold.

Jason Slayden has previously sung the role of Rodolfo with Vancouver Opera, Arizona Opera, and Virginia Opera. His performance was praised as absolutely right for the character and his acting as natural and easy and effective as his singing. He was equally effective as Gabriele Adorno in POV's Simon Boccanegra.

Making her role debut as Musetta, Marcello's irresistible but faithless girlfriend, is coloratura soprano Sharleen Joynt, who was the Queen of the Night in last season's The Magic Flute.

We're thrilled to welcome internationally known Canadian baritone Brett Polegato in the role of Marcello. Brett has performed with POV several times, most recently as Ford in Falstaff and the villainous Paolo in Simon Boccanegra.

Also in the cast are two more alumni of Maria StuardaStephen Hegedus as Colline and Andrew Love as Schaunard. J. Patrick Raftery rejoins us as both the landlord Benoît and Musetta's rich, elderly lover Alcindoro, following entertaining cameos as the Major domo in Ariadne auf Naxos and M. Taupe in Capriccio.

The cast is completed by Joé Lampron as Parpignol, the toyseller, Taylor Fawcett as the pruneseller, Louis Dillon as the Custom House Officer, and Stephen Cropper as the Sergeant.




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