On a High Note



An Introduction to La Boheme

There are certain works of art that will touch your heart, send a cascade of chills down your spine, and make tears roll down your eyes. For me, La Boheme is one of those works. I have memorized the soundtrack and imagined myself starring in it on the stage of the Met, and I will forever hold its story dear to my heart. But I am definitely not alone in my feelings towards this opera, because it has been consistently one of the most highly performed operas around the world. Many people may be familiar with the plot of the opera for it was what inspired the storyline of the musical Rent, and this modernization of La Boheme is a testament to the timelessness of the story, applicable to nearly any generation. La Boheme has been featured in movies such as Moonstruck and has had a great impact on popular culture.

La Boheme was written by composer Giacomo Puccini with librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, and it is based on Scenes de la Vie de Boheme by Henri Murger. When the opera premiered in 1896 it was an instant success. And the combination of the tragic love story and the beautiful music has kept audiences intrigued with the opera even today.

The first act of La Boheme takes place in Paris in the 1830s. In their worn apartment, the near-destitute poet Rodolfo, painter Marcello, philosopher Colline, and musician Schaunard celebrate Christmas together. As his friends leave for the Café Momus, Rodolfo promises to join them later, remaining behind to write. There is a knock at the door and Rodolpho’s neighbor Mimì candle has gone out on the stairway. Rodolfo relights it when Mimì then realizes she has lost her key, and in the confusion, both candles are blown out. The two begin to feel a connection towards one another, and then Rodolfo in one of the most famed and well regarded tenor arias (“Che gelida manina”) tells Mimì his dreams. She (in another famous aria titled “Mi chiamano Mimì”) then recounts on her life. After Mimì’s aria, Rodolfo’s friends are heard outside, urging him to join them; he calls back that he is not alone and will be along shortly. Expressing their joy in finding each other the two sing the duet “O soave fanciulla” and then they leave for the café.

The first act presents an archetypical romance, however even though the romance is formed very quickly between the two main characters, their love seems a product of innocence and affection rather than obsession or infatuation. The idea that two people might be fated to have a connection is a hopeful sentiment that many people still share in our modern day, and therefore seeing a beautiful connection like Mimi and Rodolfo’s in the first act, brings a smile to the faces of most young audience members.
The opera continues with a scene in the streets of Paris at the Café Momus. Rodolfo introduces Mimì to his friends. Marcello’s former sweetheart, Musetta, makes a noisy entrance on the arm of the elderly but wealthy Alcindoro. The ensuing tumult reaches its peak when, trying to regain Marcello’s attention, Musetta sings a famous waltz about her popularity (“Quando me’n vo”). But as the third act begins the mood of the opera is immediately different. At dawn by a tavern, Mimì wanders in and tells Marcello of her distress over Rodolfo’s incessant jealousy. Rodolfo then appears from the tavern and Mimì hides nearby. He tells Marcello that he wants to separate from Mimi and reveals that she is very sick. Rodolfo fears that her coughing and illness can only grow worse in the poverty they share. Then in one of the most emotional moments in the opera, Mimì stumbles forward to bid her lover farewell in the heart-wrenching aria “Donde lieta uscì.”

Act three is strikingly sad not only because of Puccini’s beautiful music, but also because Mimi and Rodolfo are being separated by illness and sacrifice. Even though Mimi has shown signs of a cough throughout the whole opera, this is the first time that her illness is addressed. Mimi’s farewell to Rodolfo is heartbreaking because many people may be able to relate to the moment when they have been separated from the one that they love due to uncontrollable circumstances. And the demon of time seems to be the greatest enemy in their relationship.

At the end of the opera it is springtime and the four men are back in Rodolfo’s apartment. Musetta bursts in to tell them that Mimì is outside and is too weak to come upstairs. Rodolfo carries her in, and then Mimì and Rodolfo recall their first meeting and past happy days, but Mimi begins coughing violently (Duet: “Sono andati?”). Then Mimì begins to drift into unconsciousness. When Rodolfo at last realizes that she is dead, he throws himself despairingly on her body, and the opera ends as he tragically calls her name.

Franco Zeffirelli’s production has been frequently performed at the Metropolitan Opera among opera companies around the world, and it has become a favorite for many audiences. Being incredibly lifelike and elaborate, Zeffirelli’s production does a great job of making the audience members feel transported into each of the scenes, and this adds to the emotional intensity of the opera. Particularly the way that Zeffirelli creates the contrast between winter and spring and day and night sets the tone and mood for each of the four acts.

I was very excited to have the opportunity to see the broadcast of La Boheme on April 5th, because this was not the first time that had seen Franco Zeffirelli’s production, and it is something that never ceases to blow me away. The production features a cast of hundreds, onstage snowfall, a horse and mule, real food and a detailed reconstruction of a Paris shopping district. The attention to detail in this production is astonishing, and a great example of a very traditional adaptation.

The opera on Saturday was conducted by Italian conductor Stefano Ranzani and featured a talented group of emerging singers. Although Romanian soprano Anita Hartig had to cancel her matinee performance that day, her replacement soprano, Kristine Opolais, bravely led the opera on very short notice. Her performance was very clean and graceful, and she portrayed an enjoyable Mimi despite the tumult. Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo made his Live in HD debut as the passionate and penniless young poet Rodolfo and Susanna Phillips sang the flirtatious Musetta. Additionally, Massimo Cavalletti played the painter Marcello, Patrick Carfizzi played Schaunard, and Oren Gradus played Colline. The cast was very strong overall and did justice to all of Puccini’s lyrical lines of music, and each brought their own unique flavor of interpretation to the famous and well-known arias.

If you are familiar with the musical Rent, or even just want an enjoyable introduction to opera, I would highly recommend La Boheme to anyone. And if you missed La Boheme in theaters, there are many other ways to experience this opera. There are several DVD recordings of past staged Metropolitan Opera productions, and even recently there was a movie adaptation created starring Anna Netrebko as Mimi, Rolando Villazon as Rodolfo, and Nicole Cabell as Musetta.

Christina Bianco ’17 (christinabianco@college) loves when Italian operas are set in France.