SFOpera - Everything you know about 'La Bohème' is wrong…

Everything you know about 'La Bohème' is wrong…

All the clichés may have been right a hundred years ago (probably not), but they are assuredly tired and wrong now. If we’re going to continue to hold La Bohème at the core of operatic repertory—and we should—then the narrative surrounding the opera needs to evolve.  

Anna Netrebko starred as Musetta in our La Bohème in 2000. Photo by Larry Merkle.

La Bohème is the world’s most performed opera. Popularity, of course, brings with it a directly proportionate level of critical contempt, and La Bohème earns its fair share. However, the real barriers to a proper appreciation of this opera aren’t the venomous statements of its detractors as much as some of the patronizingly simpering of those who claim to love—or at least tolerate—it. Every review will contain a touch of this condescension. They will call La Bohème an “audience favorite,” an epithet whose subtext suggests that the bourgeois audience is an uneducated lump that requiring bland musical pabulum. A recent review stated “We don’t love La Bohème for its intellectualism.” We don’t love Wagner operas for their intellectualism either. That critic probably values Wagner’s intellectualism to justify his discussion of it, but he loves it for the same reason anybody loves anything, Puccini included: because it expresses something about his own experience that he finds difficult yet imperative to express. Always question a critic’s real meaning when you come across the phrase “audience favorite.” 

Critics aren’t the only people who make indulgent statements about La Bohème. Even fans have fallen into a lazy pattern when discussing this piece. You know the statements I’m talking about, because you’ve heard or read them dozens of times, even (and especially) if you’re new to opera: We love La Bohème for its sheer passion and romance; it’s the perfect first opera for the operatic newcomer; it’s easy to understand, as operas go; it’s realistic and believable; young people will like it because it’s about young people… and so forth. Let’s unpack these one by one so we can reassemble them on a higher level. First there’s the love and passion label. I suspect this is a nicer way of saying “don’t be intellectual about this opera.” Many operas portray love and passion (whatever that means) well, and actually La Bohème ranks behind many others in erotic terms. If you think about, there is—notable within the context of Puccini’s catalogue—no actual sex on stage in La Bohème. If we are to understand the extended Puccinian love duet as a convincing theatrical analogue of the sex act (and we should), then Manon Lescaut, Madama Butterfly, and La Fanciulla del West (not to mention the uncompleted Turandot, meant to climax with opera’s ultimate love/sex duet) are all sexual almost to the point of pornography, while La Bohème is notable for its lack of a love duet. (I know, there’s “O soave fanciulla” at the end of Act I, but I contend this is not meant to be understood as a consummation. For one thing, they tell us so, when Mimì brushes off Rodolfo’s attempted kiss and tells him, rather cleverly, that if he takes her to dinner and a night out, he might get some of what he craves later on.) So, the incurable romantic might say, “maybe they’re not having sex in Act I, but they’re falling in love, and it is opera’s ultimate falling-in-love moment.” But is it? Is that what’s really happening in Act I? I believe Puccini is telling us something else entirely, something more nuanced and complex. Rodolfo’s Act I aria “Che gelida manina” is largely comprised of musical reminiscences from the beginning of the act. Why? If you’re one of Puccini’s detractors, you’ll say this is Puccini being lazy with his tunes. Musicologist Joseph Kerman, in his famous diatribe against Tosca, says that particular opera concludes with the big theme from the tenor’s earlier aria because the orchestra “plays the first thing that pops into its head.” It’s a neat trick: fault Puccini for coming up with gorgeous melodies too often, and then fault him for not coming up with a sufficient number of gorgeous melodies. (It’s like the old schtick of the two guys complaining about a restaurant: “The food here is terrible!” “…And such small portions, too!”) But if we listen to the music of La Bohème with the same respect we would render to a Wagner score, we find much. The aria builds up using snippets of the conversation (casual talk can have supreme significance in the world of La Bohème) Rodolfo had with his roommate Marcello when they were engaging in witty banter about their poor but picturesque bohemian lifestyle. In other words, Rodolfo’s talking about himself, using expressions he’s tested out on his wingman “bro” (Marcello) for use on a hot chick when one comes along. (Note Rodolfo’s excitement when he realizes the knock on his garret door is coming from a woman, “una donna!” He might as well say “It’s show time!” and the subsequent glorious aria is his well rehearsed audition piece rather than a spontaneous expression of love at first sight).

Luciano Pavarotti and Mirella Freni made their San Francisco Opera debuts as Mimì and Rodolfo in our 1967 production (above).  Photo by Margaret Norton. Friends since childhood, the pair reprised their roles here in 1988 (below). Photo by Ron Scherl.

Now for the second canard: La Bohème is the perfect first opera.

It is a great first opera because it’s a great opera. The same is true for any other great opera (including, yes, Alban Berg’s 20th-century Wozzeck), provided the performance is good and the production is not too self-serving. I believe it’s time to put the idea of La Bohème as the definitive first opera to rest, because it is truly misleading to think of this opera as a gentle bridge to the harder, meatier stuff. It simply is no longer true, if indeed it ever was. A hundred years ago, people might have found the use of melody in La Bohème to be more comprehensible to their ears, trained on participatory singing in parlors, choirs, and public gatherings, than, say, Wagner and others. However, in the subsequent century those Wagnerian techniques have become more familiar through modernist music (not to mention film and television soundtracks, which have a direct lineage from Wagner) and participatory singing has become rarer. In my experience, operatic newcomers comprehend Wagner’s musical language better than Puccini’s. Part of this is Puccini’s vaunted economy of expression. When Wagner intends for you to grasp a point, oh you’ll grasp it alright. Puccini makes his points more quickly and with the fewest possible notes. Consider how the two composers handle the notion of redemption in musical terms. In Wagner’s scores, an entire evening can be devoted to the mystical journey of salvation from suspension to resolution (Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal being supreme examples). In Puccini, a single moment will cover the same territory, and these moments become increasingly concise over his career: from the shimmering metamorphosis of the love theme from minor to major sequences in the intermezzo of Manon Lescaut (1893); to the one-measure, four-note minor-major journey that is the central motif of La Fanciulla del West (1910); to the single half-step ascent in the piccolo that signifies the righteous death of Liù in Turandot (written in 1924, and, rather poignantly, the last notes Puccini wrote). Perhaps there are shortened attention spans in our day. That sort of economic expression eludes more people today than Wagner’s expansive music, no matter how challenging Wagner may appear to musical analysts.

San Francisco Opera’s first Mimì was Queena Mario in 1923. The soprano signed this photo “To my dear friends Mr. and Mrs. Merola, with love and affectionate wishes for every good thing.” Photo curtesy of San Francisco Museum of Performances and Design. 

Even the relative shortness of Puccini’s operas is easier on our backsides than on our ears. Yet people will find other reasons to call La Bohème “easy,” including textual ones. Young people, they believe, appreciate its subject matter of, well, young people. I disagree. Young people appreciate it because it’s good, but the tragedy in La Bohème is not one aimed specifically at young people. In fact, if we look beyond the surfaces, it becomes clear that the tragedy is actually one that resonates most powerfully with people who have lived a few years. Let’s take an unflinching look at the real tragedy—the one that really makes us choke up—in La Bohème. It’s not what most people think it is.

People say the realism in La Bohème makes it approachable (and therefore appropriate for young people and newcomers to opera). But the realism of this opera is a source of more confusion than comfort. For one thing, it is a verismo opera, and verismo does not denote realism in any English-language sense. This genre of opera, derived from literature, seeks truth (verità in Italian). Truth and that which passes for reality, as everyone knows, are not the same thing. Nor should verismo opera be too easily lumped together with its ancestor, literary Naturalism.

That literary genre had specific goals, including the political: using the grungy realities of the everyday life of average people to reveal injustice and inequality in modern life. The unpleasantries of contemporary urban life, (prostitution, poverty, disease), were all marshaled by Naturalists such as Zola, Ibsen, Strindberg, and others. To be sure, many of these features seem present in La Bohème, and yet there are important differences too. Note the erudite, windy language used by Rodolfo and his friends, full of pomp (“I bow before my king,” says Rodolfo to the paltry coins in Act I; Schaunard calls dancing a “choreographic action” in Act IV). These are not poor people; they are educated bourgeois who at the moment have no money. Rodolfo even tells us in Act II about his “rich uncle” who, if “God is reasonable” (and what does he mean by this? Will a reasonable God kill off his uncle and provide Rodolfo with an inheritance?) will enable Rodolfo to buy Mimì a better necklace than the coral one she is admiring. In fact, Rodolfo and his fellow bohemians are nothing other than urban hipsters—choosing to live outside of bourgeois society in order to enjoy artistic and sexual independence in the hub of uber-hipness, Paris. We learn more about Rodolfo’s rich uncle and about all the bohemians in the source novel, Scènes de la vie de bohème by Henri Murger. Rodolphe, as he is called, has a working-poor uncle, another in the country, and dreams of another who leaves him an entire territory in Peru, including the female inhabitants (money and women are often conflated in this world). Schaunard mentions an uncle who is a good judge. At the end of this novel, Mimì is dead, as in the opera, but much else has died as well. Musette [sic] marries a postmaster and achieves respectability. Colline, too, inherits money and makes “a good marriage.” Marcel [sic] and Rodolphe are swallowed into the official system as well. This, I believe, is the real tragedy of La Bohème. The dreams of youth crash with the realization that self-proclaimed genius and youthful individualism are not enough. It reminds me of the old television commercial for Amy Tang’s novel The Joy Luck Club: “She wanted to be different. She didn’t want to be like her mother. And then one day she realized… that made her just like her mother.” My late, outspoken mother used to complain that Rodolfo loved Mimì so much, he would do anything for her—except get a job. I think it’s the death of Mimì that makes him realize he, too, will have to get a job just like everyone else. His good looks and good poetry were not enough to save Mimì or achieve any other dreams. The tragedy of this opera is not hers (everyone dies, in life and opera both) but his, and therefore ours. Everyone has made tragic compromises in life. This is part of the reason I maintain that La Bohème is even more tragic for audiences with a few decades under their spreading belts than for eagerly cultivated young audiences. Older people remember post-college horny poverty as the “glory days”: young people who are actually living them tend to find the phase much less fabulous. So it is the bohemian lifestyle—the vie de bohème of both the novel and opera titles—that is the true tragic heroine of the opera, and that is one which all of us have lost and whose loss we all mourn to some extent. The score bears out my contention. When Mimì dies, it is sad—we hear a “shiver” and the orchestra wanders harmonically unanchored into any one key (as if to say something’s vaguely wrong, but neither we nor the characters on stage are sure exactly what yet). It is only when Rodolfo finally figures out what has happened that the orchestra thunders out the unforgettable chords in the inherently sad key of c-sharp minor. (This is the key of the evocative adagio first movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata; other readers might also recognize this key from Led Zeppelin’s equally moody song “No Quarter,” with the lyric “walking side by side with death…”). The orchestra demands heartbreak not for Mimì’s death but for the bohemians’ realization that something is gone. It’s the lifestyle they had clung to in the desperate belief that they could be different from their bourgeois parents and uncles; that they could live on art and their own cleverness and good looks and abundant sex energy shared outside of wedlock. La (vie de) bohème is over. It’s time to do the thing you had been avoiding, literally and figuratively, since at least Act I: it’s time to pay the rent. This doesn’t say that Rodolfo is heartless, merely that he’s human. This is why I believe his aria “Che gelida manina” is not truly falling in love at first sight, with its references to previous conversations he had had with his friend. What he’s doing in that aria is coming on to Mimì, just like any frat boy in a bar (albeit with somewhat more impressive technique). He wants casual sex, not love. But despite his smooth moves and supposed rejection of bourgeois values, he falls in love. He becomes more invested than he had ever intended, and finds out, (at least by Act III, and certainly by the end), that one gets mired emotionally as well as economically. Free love, it turns out, is anything but…. Love, too, demands the rent. 

I won’t insist that everyone agree with my ideas about the true depth of La Bohème. I will, however, insist that people either allow that it does have tremendous depth far beyond the standard hackneyed conventions, or that they attend good performances of it with minds opened wider than mouths until they can speak of La Bohème with the unreserved respect it merits. 

Piotr Beczala (Rodolfo) and Angela Gheorghiu (Mimì) in our 2008 production. Photo by Terrence McCarthy.

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