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Operapedia: La Bohème 

Henry Stewart consumes Puccini’s iconic tragedy.
by Henry Stewart. 

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Puccini
didn’t push the form forward, as Richard Strauss would within a decade. Instead, he wrote unabashedly beautiful music, the apotheosis of that lushly Romantic Italian sound. The Metropolitan Opera has performed Bohème 1,290 times, more than any other opera, and, except for 2013, it has been at the house every year since 1981, when the now-iconic Franco Zeffirelli production received its premiere. Dozens of artists have made their company debuts in it, including Vittorio Grigolo, Roberto Alagna, Angela Gheorghiu, Patricia Racette and Plácido Domingo—as a conductor!

 

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Time and Place

Bohème is set in an epochal Paris of starving artists that the opera helped iconize. Puccini re-created a city very different, spiritually and geographically, from the one that existed at the time of the opera’s premiere. By the 1860s, Café Momus, where the characters party during Act II, had already become a paint store, and today it’s a boutique hotel—a long way from a boho Right Bank bar! Act III’s tavern just beyond the city limits—at the Barrière d’Enfer (Gate of Hell), now the Place Denfert-Rochereau—was no longer the edge of town but well within the new walls. Today it’s a major traffic intersection—not the opera’s sleepy, snowy, secluded hideaway.

 


Something Completely Different

Jonathan Larson moved Puccini’s characters from 1830-ish Paris to 1990-ish Alphabet City: Mimì’s lost key becomes Mimi’s lost bag of dope; tuberculosis becomes AIDS; “Quando me’n vo’” becomes “Take Me or Leave Me.” Rent opened off Broadway in 1996—the day after the thirty-five-year-old Larson died from a freak heart problem. The show moved to Broadway, won the Tony and Pulitzer Prize and ran for twelve years and more than 5,000 performances (during which time Bohème played 169 performances at the Met), making it the eleventh longest-running show in Broadway history.

 

 

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In Pop Culture

Bohème’s ongoing popularity at the Met might be because it’s the show Nicolas Cage and Cher go to see there in Moonstruck, making it the night-out opera for newbies and basic-cable junkies: all the stereotypical trappings—the fountain at Lincoln Center, the black tie, the ornate chandeliers—are there. (The characters basically fall in love during the last lines of “Donde lieta uscì.”) Puccini’s music pervades the soundtrack, helping transform John Patrick Shanley’s humble romance between working-class Brooklynites into a grand fairy-tale.

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The Performance We Should've Seen

Rent was on Broadway and Bohème was at the Met when Baz Luhrmann—then best known in the U.S. for movies such as Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!—opened a spectacular, $8.5-million production of Puccini’s opera on Broadway, where it ran for a disappointing 228 performances. New York City ca. 2002 was positively Bohème-saturated! Luhrmann told The New York Times he was “taking this work back to the broad audiences for whom it was written.” “Have any of these people,” Brooks Peters responded rhetorically in OPERA NEWS, “been barred from opera houses?”


On Background
 
The librettists took as their source Henry Murger’s newspaper serial about his friends, collected in 1851 as Scènes de la Vie de Bohème; Puccini et al. condensed and streamlined it (and made it less resemble Verdi’s 1853 La Traviata). “Murger’s book has both endured and faded because of its fervent, wholehearted, mulishly determined sentimentality,” Luc Sante writes in The Other Paris. “It branded bohemia, gave it an origin myth…. Murger … made [bohemia] into a sort of secular religion, all noble suffering and unjust persecution.” Puccini transformed Murger’s storefront church into a gothic cathedral.


Hit Tune

I’ve never seen a Musetta who could make Puccini’s obnoxious character, a love interest for one of the hero’s friends, as much fun as she could be. Still, Musetta’s waltz, “Quando me’n vo,” the Act II showcase for the coquette, has endured, because it’s such a luscious earworm, delicate yet epic, provoking fantasies of Second Empire splendor; for many, it’s the quintessential aural evocation of Paris, on par with Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose”—even though the aria was written in Italian by Italians. Bobby Worth adapted the melody for the American pop song “Don’t You Know,” which became a hit in 1959 for Della Reese, mixing up matters of provenance even further.

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The Basics

A starving poet meets a sickly seamstress. They fall in love, but he pushes her away, toward someone rich enough to pay for medicine. She dies anyway.

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Surprise Showstopper

For me, Bohème is musically and dramatically all about Act III, and Act III is all about Mimì’s aria “Donde lieta uscì,” her farewell to her penurious true love, Rodolfo. My heart breaks when Anna Netrebko, in a hipster-dress production in Salzburg in 2012, sings her penultimate “addio” with such forlorn finality, but my soul shatters when Teresa Stratas, in a video of the Zeffirelli production when it was new, sings the final line, “senza rancor” (without hard feelings), with perhaps the most tender sounds any human has ever produced in the species’s history.

First Performances
Arturo Toscanini conducted the premiere, in Turin on February 1, 1896. (Fifty years later, Toscanini would also conduct an anniversary recording, with Licia Albanese and the NBC Symphony Orchestra.) Critics and audiences were initially meh about the opera, but it quickly became the most popular in the world. The Opéra Comique, in Paris, first performed Bohème in 1898; by 1951, it had been performed there 1,000 times—an average of once every nineteen days or so, for fifty-three years.

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Where It Is This Season 
More like where it isn’t. Forty-seven productions are scheduled through next July, including this month at Glimmerglass and Wolf Trap, and within the next year in Cardiff, Dresden, Frankfurt, Glasgow and Hungary—in two different productions by its State Opera.

 



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