I like the L.A. Opera’s La Bohème, as I usually do. Hearing Puccini’s infinitely appealing score at Mrs. Chandler’s Pavilion the other night, in a generally excellent performance under Hartmut Haenchen, who had also led an okay Don Giovanni the night before, I found myself amazed once again (for perhaps the 500th time) at what a sure piece of dramatic workmanship it all is. The cast is young and exuberant, and plays well to each other. I’ve always liked Herbert Ross’ indoor-outdoor set, which looks like someplace where people actually live. I noted the anachronism – the half-finished Eiffel Tower in the background, which sets the date at around 1880, and Musetta’s fancy car in Act 2, from around 1930 – but I wasn’t in the mood to let such things bother me. I missed the scene from the third act, however, with the bicycles.
Alas, I awoke the next morning with a lousy cold, as I usually don’t, and wondered if something I’d previously written, among the dozens I’ve written about the opera, might hold my place this once. I think this one does:
What makes an opera work? If I were to guide a friend through the devious answers to that question, my final goal would be an understanding of the human interplay with Mozart’s music in The Marriage of Figaro, tempered with awe at the interaction of harmony and tragedy in Berg’s Wozzeck. There would be other major mileposts along our way – Verdi’s Otello, Wagner’s Die Meistersinger and parts of The Ring, Monteverdi’s Orfeo, Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. We would start with La Bohème, and we would stay there for quite a while.
The very opening: It takes two brief musical phrases – Marcello’s music ill-tempered and choppy, Rodolfo’s response lyrical, soaring – and we know these two characters as well as they know each other. Later, Rodolfo’s graceful curve of a tune will recur during his first outpouring to Mimì (“Che gelida manina…”).
The guys plan their outing, to spend some new-found cash downstairs at the café. A melody winds its way softly through the orchestra, distinctive in its antique harmonies, which I had learned in Charles Cushing’s class at UC Berkeley never to use (parallel fifths! automatic D-minus!); it might be an old Christmas carol. The same tune, more joyous and aggressive, will usher in the festivities in Act 2. It will reappear, chill and bleak, at the start of Act 3, where it will transform into a haunting tone poem about a dismal corner of wintry Paris at daybreak. I love Puccini’s atmosphere pieces, usually at the start of operatic acts: the Roman daybreak in the last act of Tosca, life along the river at the start of Il Tabarro, dawn breaking over Nagasaki near the end of Madama Butterfly, even the offstage choruses resounding through the Chinese night in Turandot, leading up to “Nessun dorma.”
Mimì knocks and enters; soft strings fill the room with her aroma. Her radiant, quiet tune becomes her first song to Rodolfo (“Mi chiamano Mimì”); it will identify her throughout the opera, will turn sad under her farewell in Act 3, and will shatter and drift away as her life ebbs at the end. Listen, in this first encounter, as she and Rodolfo move toward each other, shyly and with broken phrases, then a more substantial vocal line as their hands touch.
The second act of La Bohème is surely Puccini’s shortest: under 18 minutes in my favorite recording (not telling). It’s amazing how much takes place, with the interplay among the Bohemians down front, the biz with Musetta and her sugar daddy, the street kids and their balloons, the panorama of surging Paris life, including parading tin soldiers, on Christmas Eve. It’s all like cinematic writing before its time, and you can’t resist.
It’s easy enough to poke holes in Puccini’s art, and heaven knows that I’ve done my share. I saw the (2002) movie of Tosca, fell in love with Angela Gheorghiu in the title role, and still came home with the empty feeling of having wasted two hours on music that constantly must strain for its dramatic effect, whose harmonies curdle the senses with their drab insistence, whose characters derive no life from their music and remain cardboard even in moments of high passion. La Bohème is different; it teems with life, it reaches out in its youthful urgency and pulls you in. It survives restaging, as in the not-bad Baz Luhrmann updating. Its storyline outlives generation gaps, but its music retains its appeal even more fiercely. There is a moment in the last act, after the mortally ill Mimì is brought back to the garret to die, wherein if I’ve heard it 500 times I have wept real tears 500 times. The forgiveness scene at the end of Figaro also affects me that way, as does the moment in Die Walkre when the doors blow open and moonlight pours in; if this one masterpiece off Puccini’s workbench reaches me on that level, then Puccini can’t be all that bad.