by Sam Juliano
The ABCs of opera. Aida. Boheme. Carmen. This triptych expression has come to denote not only the essentials for a newcomer to the form, but also the most pared down assessment of these three quintessential works that continue to rate among the most performed operas year after year worldwide. The middle of the three, Giacomo Puccini’s 1896 La Boheme may well have emerged the most popular opera of all-time over the past ten or fifteen years if we further examine some telling statistics. Certainly there can be little doubt that it is the most perfectly composed of the composer’s works, and the one that boasts the most clarity of structure. It is also (along with Carmen) one of the two most frequently mentioned operas by musicologists to have made converts of non-believers of the form. La Boheme is the perfect choice for one’s first introduction to opera, whether in attendance at the opera house, via HD broadcast or on an audio CD. Charming, sublime, lyrical, sentimental and suffused with soaring emotions, this four-act work of moderate length (by opera standards) is finally unbearably poignant, but along the way it showcases some of the most beautiful music ever written. Puccini’s incomparable melodic felicity -often attacked back in the day as shameless and ‘wearing your heart on your sleeve – by the cynics, is now regarded as old-fashioned melody-making that very few have been able successfully emulate. Though the composer crafted several operas that border on master-class (Turandot, La Fanciula de West, Manon Lescaut, Gianni Schicchi –the latter contains the beloved suprano aria “O Mio Babbino Caro” while the first-mentioned features the electrifying tenor standard “Nessun Dorma”) La Boheme is one of the three unquestioned masterpieces (Tosca and Madama Butterfly are the others) that have beguiled and ravished opera goers for many decades, and no doubt will continue to do so well into the future.
In 1890 Giacomo Puccini was basically just another impoverished Italian composer, one of many jockeying to reach poll position as heir apparent to the great Verdi. His very first opera enjoyed moderate success, but the second was an unmitigated failure. This led the opera critics of the day to write early obituaries for the young upstart from Lucca, before he astounded them with his breakthrough work Manon Lescaut three years later. It was the first of what were to be four collaborations with the librettists Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica. This turned out to be a working relationship wrought with disputes, complaints and multiple near-break ups, yet through some stroke of luck they persevered to produce four of the most enduring operas of all-time, starting with the aforementioned Manon Lescaut. Puccini had been hunting for a subject for months before he discovered Henri Murger’s Scenes de la vie de Boheme, a novel based on the author’s irresponsible youth while becoming an artist. Together with Illica and Giacosa, Puccini labored for three years to transform the material into its final dramatic form. Along the way there were many revisions – Illica and Giacosa were often exasperated – but stayed on, and Puccini worked hard to better another version of the opera that was being composed by friend and rival Ruggero Leoncavallo. Puccini’s version bettered it by quite some distance, and the noted verismo style seemed a much better fit that the light comedy of the first act that Leoncavallo composed. No other art is so attuned to fleeting romanticism like opera. Fleeting in the sense that the moorings of most operatic works are steeped in passionate love affairs that invariable end in tragedy. Most of the dying characters are women of a young age, though mutual demise is another theme explored regularly.
In their gloomy Latin Quarter garret in Paris, the practically destitute artists Marcello and poet Rodolfo try to stay warm on Christmas Eve by feeding the stove with pages from Rodolfo’s drama. They are soon joined by their roomates – Colline, a young philosopher, and Schaunard, a musician, who brings food, fuel and funds. Benoit, their landlord enters to ask for the rent, but they skillfully evade him. As the others depart Rodolfo stays behind to complete an article, promising to catch up with them imminently. A young and timid seamstress Mimi shyly knocks at the door to ask for a light for her candle. Rodolfo is charmed and proceeds to prolong the encounter; he tells her about himself, and shares with her his dreams of love in one of the most rapturous and progressively romantic tenor arias in all of opera, “Che gelida manina” (Your tiny hand is frozen…what an icy little hand, let me warm it……Who am I? I am a poet……I have no worldly riches, but every poem is a treasure. So in poverty I am a millionaire. Mimi in turn introduces herself, describing her loneliness and attic lodgings, proceeding to deliver one of the most poetic and lilting soprano arias in all of opera, “Mi chiamano Mimi” (They call me Mimi……yes they call me Mimi, but my name is Lucia. My story is short. I make my living by sewing and embroidering. I am quiet and cheerful….I live in a little garret room overlooking the sky.) Mini’s simple, and powerfully impassioned proclamation to the sun and the April spring:
ma quando vien lo sgelo
il primo sole è mio
il primo bacio dell’aprile è mio!
Germoglia in un vaso una rosa…
Foglia a foglia la spio!
….is the most blissful of all romantic lead-ins, and one of Giacosa’s most poetic stanzas. Some of the best sopranos have always counted this among their most coveted passages of one of the greatest roles in all of opera. No soprano of true worth did not deliver the goods with this role, those it’s a tricky proposition to assert which singers were most prominent in the role.
The shouts of Rodolfo’s friends from the courtyard below call him to the window; the moonlight flooding the room, shines directly on Mimi’s face and Rodolfo is overcome with emotion. Both embrace and sing the opera’s most famous duet, the ecstatic “O soave fanciulla.” The number combined the most rapturous sections of “Che Gelida Manina” and “Mi chiamano Mini” to create one of the score’s most ravishing passages, and a full declaration of the couple’s love for each other. They then go off to join Rodolfo’s friends at the Cafe Momus.
The orchestral music that provides as a segue into the opera’s second act is properly celebratory and it underscores the bustling and brightly lit street in the Latin Quarter where Rodolfo and Mimi meet the other Bohemians outside the Cafe Momus. The entrance of Marcello’s erstwhile mistress, Musetta, causes a sensation, as she is on the arm of a wealthy admirer, Alcindoro. She situates at a neighboring table and attempts to attract Marcello’s attention by singing of the amorous allure her appearance inspires. The waltz song “Quando me’n vo’ soletta per la vie” (When I walk alone in the street, people praise my beauty from head to toe. You must still love me; why don’t you return? Marcello, after some initial irritation, capitulates; Musetta creates a scene to get rid of Alcindoro, and throws herself into her former lover’s arms. Disaster strikes when the bill is presented, and it is unknown who will pick it up. As a military band approaches, the Bohemians disappear into crowd. Alcindoro re-enters to find Musetta absent and collapses in disbelief at the huge bill left for him. This scene exudes an erotic decadence as Musetta’s profession is clear enough, and the implied promiscuity of the flirty waltz maneuvers is highly sexual in tone. Many opera fans consider this the most captivating aria in the score, and it immediately won international solo licensing after the work debuted.
Act III opens outside a tavern on the fringes of Paris. It is envisioned superlatively in the film version of the opera that is actually the subject of this essay, even if it has not yet been discussed. It is bleak and snowy morning in February; street-sweepers and peasants pass by on their way to the city. There is a clear sense of foreboding when Mini is unveiled here as weak and afflicted by a nagging cough. She is looking for Marcello, who promptly walks out of the tavern. She informs him of all her troubles, telling him how Rodolfo torments her with his constant jealousy. When Rodolfo himself appears Mini retreats in confusion, hoping to avert a confrontation. Roldolfo tells Marcello a different story: his jealous fits hide despair over Mimi’s increasingly serious illness. Mimi’s coughs and sobs announce her presence just as Marcello, hearing Musetta’s laugh, rushes back inside. Rodolfo and Mini agree that they must part, but sing poignantly of their love in a sublime duet that further prove that melodic invention is evenly dispersed throughout the opera. Marcello and Musetta exchange insults while Rodolfo and Mimi agree to stay together until the coming of spring, turning the end of the act into one of the most beloved quartets in all of opera.
The opera’s final act is staged again in the Bohemians’ garret. It is clear enough that a few months have passed. Rodolfo and Marcello are discussing Mimi and Musetta. They feign indifference, but reveal their true feelings in a lovely and aching tenor-baritone duet “Ah, Mimi, tu piu non torni” as each mourns for his former sweetheart. Colline and Schaunard arrive, and the four friends enact a series of charades culminating in a frantic mock duel. Musetta’s sudden appearance shatters the mood with new that Mimi is extremely ill with consumption. She is brought in, and her dire conditions spurs the Bohemians to scrape together money for a doctor. Colline moves to pawn his old coat, and sings it an elegiac aria of farewell – “Vecchia zimarra.” Alone at this point, Rodolfo and Mimi reminisce about their first meeting. The others return, and Mimi slowly drifts into a coma. As Rodolfo comforts her Schaunard discovers that her sleep will be permanent. The opera ends on Rodolfo’s anguished cries.
The 1965 film version of La Boheme was directed by one of opera’s most celebrated icons, Franco Zeffirelli, whose painterly eye and aesthetic traditionalism is a perfect fit for a work that boasts some ravishing settings. The director uses his camera to acentuate some rather vital plots points. One, the key-dropping in the first act that occurs just before “Che Gelida Manina” is normally obscure in stage productions, but is rescued here by the ever-reliable zoom close-up. During the delightful Cafe Momus segment the director swings back and forth in accord with the movement that could only be scene as part of the general picture on the stage. Zeffirelli’s attention to physical movement superbly compliments the rousing on-rushing timber of the aria. The director is generous with close-ups of his stars, the now-legendary Mirella Freni (Mimi), who at that time was rising to supreme prominence, and the underrated Gianni Raimondi (Rodolfo), whose robust, well-modulated voice gives more authenticity to the Bohemian he is playing. Physically he is appropriately non-descript, perfect in a way that more high profile singers like Lucio Pavarotti were not. Freni’s silvery voice (no other singer can match her “Mi Chiamano Mimi”) and telling facial expressions are the domain of the film director, and in this sense such captures trump anything that can be negotiated in an opera house. Exceptional singing was rendered by Rolando Panerai as Marcello, Gianni Maffeo as Schaunard, and Ivo Vinco as Colline, while as Musetta, Adrianao Martino is wholly extraordinary in her big number.
The tempos are seemingly perfect, the renowned conductor Herbert von Karajan, the La Scala orchestra and the cast recorded the soundtrack at the Munich Opera, while Zeffirelli employed that exquisite eye for detail, set design and costume to craft the best-looking Boheme that film could possibly achieve.
No doubt luck and timing allowed for such a magnificent film version of an opera to become part of the permanent record. Zeffirelli and a stellar cast, a first-rate conductor with one of the great opera orchestras under his baton, and a true feel for the bohemian life on the outskirts of Paris.
Franco Zeffirelli’s filmed opera of La Boheme is a masterpiece of a masterpiece.