Giacomo Puccini’s (1858-1924) opera La Bohème is a favorite in the Italian opera repertoire. Is it the music, the story, the costumes that draw large crowds to each production? Whatever the attraction, a piece of it will remain with you long after the performance.
If you are not a huge fan of opera and you have never attended a live performance, this is one I always recommend to an opera newbie. Puccini is a bit lighter and graceful in the music than other composers and somewhat more serious in his opera than say, Mozart.
Puccini’s opera (based on a story by French novelist Louis-Henri Murger, Scènes de la vie de bohème, with the libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica) is focused on four bohemians living in Paris in mid-19th century. Rodolfo, a poet, falls madly in love with Mimì, a seamstress, when she knocks on his door to ask for a light for her candle. Mimì is ill with consumption (tuberculosis) and during the course of a few months, they break up several times crying jealousy, when the real cause is Rodolfo’s fear of dealing with Mimì’s advancing illness. In the midst of this turmoil is Marcello, a painter and Musetta, a singer, who also break up several times because of Musetta’s lack of self-control around men, especially those with money. Everyone comes together in the last act and all sins are forgiven when Mimì returns to Rodolfo after living with a wealthy man at Rodolfo’s insistence. She is dying and she prefers to do so in Rodolfo’s arms.
Throughout the opera, the audience knows the inevitable. You still cannot help but fight back the tear that forms in your eye at Mimì’s death and Rodolfo’s plaintive cry, “Mimì! Mimì!” And you might find yourself wondering what would have happened to the two doomed lovers if Mimì had lived. I suppose then, after all, it wouldn’t be an opera.
The music of La Bohème is wildly popular and its theme has carried on in movies and musicals. The Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra’s performance on Saturday night chose a different route in regard to the setting, opting instead for Paris in 1938* and using scenery originally created for New York City Opera, Glimmerglass Opera and Houston Grand Opera. So if you were hoping for 19th century, it was a bit of a surprise. And while the setting allowed for a different feel of the story, the music remained the same. The orchestra, under Maestro Fabio Mechetti’s direction, knows how to bring the elegance of Puccini to life. The scenery used for the garret in Acts I and IV was much like a box and unfortunately muffled the singers so that you had to strain a bit to hear them. However, the stronger vocals rippled through the music hall well.
Those who knew the opera were, I suspect, in expectation of particular arias (solo pieces of music). First is Rodolfo and Mimì’s introductory songs. In “Che gelida manina,” Rodolfo (incredibly sung by Tenor Dinyar Vania), sings: “What a frozen little hand, let me warm it for you,” a phrase that remains a constant throughout the story. “Who am I? I’m a poet. What do I do? I write. And how do I live? I live.” But we were awaiting the tenor’s phrase “la speranza!” (“taken by hope”) and Dinyar’s booming voice shook the hall’s rafters and floated tenderly upon us with his delicate final phrases: “Or che mi conoscete, parlate voi, deh! Parlate. Chi siete? Vi piaccia dir!” (“Now that you know all about me, you tell me now who you are. Please do!”) The audience responded with a roar of applause and Dinyar became an instant favorite.
Mimì, sung by Soprano Inna Dukach, returned with her own song of introduction in “Sì. Mi chiamano Mimì” (“Yes. They call me Mimì.”) Inna captured the delicate voice of the character: “I embroider linen or silk, at home or outside. I’m contented and happy, and it’s my pleasure to make roses and lilies…I live alone, quite alone there in a little white room.” But it was her “Il primo bacio dell’aprile è mio!” (“April’s first kiss is mine!”) that pierced our hearts which were then softened with her tantalizing “il profumo d’un fior” (“of a flower is so sweet”). Inna seized the notes remarkably. She held onto them with just the right pitch then softly rolled them along her tongue as if pulling a pearl necklace from her throat. The audience again responded with rapt applause.
Soprano Yali-Marie Williams as Musetta held Act II in the palm of her hand. Her voice was impeccable and her theatrics were superb. Her animated performance of “Quando men vo”: “When I walk out alone along the street, all the people stop and stare, and seek out all my beauty from top to toe,” thrilled the audience so that they could not restrain their applause, despite Maestro Machetti’s hand waving from the pit for them to wait since the song flowed into the next piece without hesitation.
And then there’s the good-bye song in Act III Mimì sings to Rodolfo, “Donde lieta uscì al tuo grido,” asking him to send along her things except for the pink bonnet he purchased for her. “Se vuoi…serbarla a ricordo d’amore!” (“If you want to, keep it as a souvenir of our love”) she expresses in a dramatic tone that stabs us to the core. “Addio, addio senza rancor” (“Goodbye, goodbye—and no hard feelings!”) Inna’s strong, sweet tone let everyone know feelings would be crushed.
The Jacksonville Symphony performed to a packed theater from the very young to the more mature set of ones who, after 116 years, still adore Puccini, a good story and fabulous music.
*For more on the Jacksonville Symphony’s 1938 setting, click here
What about you? What do you enjoy about Puccini or La Bohème? Or opera in general?
Upcoming Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra Performance:
Feb. 16 – 18, 2012
Brahms Fourth Symphony
Beethoven: Triple Concerto
with: Cellist Tahirah Whittington, Pianist Terrence Wilson and Violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins
Brahms: Symphony No. 4
More La Bohème:
April 19, 21 & 24, 2012
Pacific Symphony, Calif.
May 4 & 5, 2012
Opera Grand Rapids, Mich.
July 15 – Aug. 12, 2012
Central City Opera, CO