MET Opera House building–Lincoln Center/Tuesday October 17th, 2023.
This week, friends, welcome once again to the MET Opera.
And welcome to classic late 19th century opera, a beloved work, including some of the most romantic melodies and arias, sumptuous orchestrations, and a lively, timeless story (even if set in the 19th century), about youthful, unconventional, penniless, bohemian artists in Paris, France, whose entertaining, yet, not always easy lives, we are introduced to, indoors, and on the street.
Welcome to Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), and his 1896 “verismo” (realistic) and incredibly popular four acts opera masterpiece: “La Bohème”.
And in many ways, the realism of the details of this bohemian lifestyle (including pieces of clothing which hold great significance for many characters), is still totally relevant to today’s world, and makes for incredibly romantic, as well as hilarious and merry moments, and for many many many other scenes of great fun, and also, in the very end (as it often happens in opera, and sometimes in life, more soberingly, makes for a final and tragic premature death.
And unsurprisingly, (1896) “La Bohème” established Puccini as a leading composer of his generation, with a libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa (1847-1906) and Luigi Illica (1857-1919), two incredible librettists who also collaborated with Puccini on his next two equally extraordinary operas: (1900) “Tosca” and (1904) “Madama Butterfly”.
Yay and wow!
And interestingly, “La Bohème” is also inspired and based on autobiographic details from an episodic novel, “Scènes de la vie de Bohème”, by French author, Henri Murger (1822-1861).
So what is “La Bohème”‘s plot about?
In a nutshell, it is about warm and lively friendships between young bohemian artists in Paris, chance meetings, falling in love, jealousy, illness, love, kindnesses, and death.
Let’s now, listen to a short wonderful MET opera trailer from a few years ago, to hear some of Puccini’s music, and get a glimpse at the amazing Zeffirelli set:
Let’s now, get into more details about the plot:
In Act I, we get to progressively, meet, all of the young artists, who are living together, in a small “chambre de bonne”/”studio”, on the very top of a Parisian building, in the Latin Quarter, trying to stay warm, on Christmas Eve, by burning their own artistic works, on a stove.
This lively group of artist friends, find hilarious and mocking ways, to avoid paying rent to their landlord, when he comes by their “studio”, to get paid.
Some of them then, leave for a “Café” nearby, while Rodolfo, the poet, stays home, a little longer to work on an article, before intending to join them outside.
How about that!
Rodolfo will then, unexpectedly, meet his neighbor, Mimi, a charming and yet ill, beautiful, lonely, young seamstress, in need of lighting up her candle, which has gone out in the staircase, and who will knock at Rodolfo’s door, and with whom, Rodolfo, will immediately, fall in love with, as will Mimi, as they get to know each other.
And let’s admire now, by two great performers, from a few years ago at the MET, two of my favorite arias from this gorgeous (“La Bohème”) opera:
First, let’s listen to Rodolfo’s wonderfully poetic “self-depiction”, a truly romantic moment:
And now, let’s turn to Mimi’s “self-portrait”, an equally beautiful, moving and charming aria, which is her response, to Rodolfo’s own “self-depiction” :
And once they do (fall in love with each other), Rodolfo and Mimi, decide to join the rest of their “crew”, at the “Café” nearby.
In Act II, on a loud and festive Parisian street, Rodolfo buys Mimi, a bonnet, as a simple, sweet, spontaneous symbol, of their love for each other; and as they get to the Café, Rodolfo introduces Mimi to his friends, they all sit down together, and order a meal. A former glamorous singer/”courtisane”/”lorette” like young woman, “Musetta”, and dressed in a stunningly chic attire, and also importantly, a former sweetheart, of one of the “crew” members, (of Marcello, the painter), then appears at the Café, on the arm, of an old and wealthy gentleman, a “protector”, Alcindoro, who, “Musetta” does not seem to care for, at all.
“Musetta” seems much more interested, and intent on, trying to recapture Marcello’s heart, by singing charmingly and joyfully, to him and others, while showing off, her seductive figure, to taunt him. And of course, ladies and gentlemen, it works!
Oh boy. And so fun!
And the now “enlarged” group of friends, dashes out of the Café, leaving their bill, to be paid, at “Musetta”‘s suggestion, by the older gentleman, her former “protector”.
The group runs out, into the festive and loud street, where even a fun military parade, can also be heard and seen, passing them by.
Yet of course, again, so fun, in its silliness and exaggeration!
In Act III, at dawn, just outside of Paris, snowflakes are swirling in the air, and we see Mimi (the seamstress), looking for the place where Marcello, (the painter), and Musetta, (the singer/”courtisane”/”lorette”), now live, a tavern.
Mimi tells then Marcello, of Rodolfo’s incessant jealousy. And as Rodolfo (the poet), appears from the tavern, Mimi hides nearby. Marcello and Rodolfo start catching up, and Rodolfo complains of Mimi’s flirtatious ways, and then, opens up, to the real reason of his distress, Mimi’s grave illness, growing worse by the day, and which, their poverty, only accelerates. Mimi, then runs to Rodolfo, immensely touched by his last comments, Marcello gets back to the tavern to join Musetta, whose laughter he overhears, also stirs in him, feelings of jealousy; while extremely movingly, Mimi and Rodolfo, after discussing a separation, finally decide, that they cannot part, and decide to remain together, at least, for a while, and at least, until the spring.
So incredibly sad.
In Act IV, months have passed, and Rodolfo (the poet), and Marcello (the painter), back in their original, Parisian, “chambre de bonne”/ “studio”, reflect on their loneliness. Colline (the philosopher), and Schaunard (the musician), bring a smallish meal to them. To lighten up their mood, all four friends, stage a fun dance on top of the roof.
Musetta (the singer/”courtisane”/”lorette”), then, barges in, and tells them, that Mimi (the seamstress), is outside, too weak, to climb up the stairs. Mimi is then, made as comfortable as possible, in the studio’s bed; by then, Musetta asks Marcello to accompany her, to sell off her earrings; to get Mimi, some medicine; while Colline, pawns off, his own coat, for extra cash. Rodolfo and Mimi recall their happy days; and when their friends return, Musetta offers Mimi, a glove like “muff”, to warm up her hands. Mimi, slowly then, drifts away silently, towards death, and all, mourn her sudden, and yet expected, death.
So sad, yet, so incredibly moving and beautiful.
What to say about the production?
Only, that Franco Zeffirelli’s beautiful, realistic, 19th century set, production, oozes with charm and poetry, and it is no wonder, that it has been seen, over 500 times (out of astonishing 1 376 performances at the MET).
What a feat!
What to say about the conductor and performers?
That the orchestra, and all the singers, under the expert baton of Italian conductor extraordinaire, the terrific Carlo Rizzi, were incredible, energized, and filled with subtle and raw emotions.
And three singers, particularly stood out for me:
First and foremost, American tenor extraordinaire, and singing the role of Rodolfo, Matthew Polenzani, was fabulous, as the totally besotted poet: what charm, charisma, and dashing good looks, and more importantly still, what star studded highly emotional tenor singing.
Second, in the role of the lovely, young, ill, loving, and truly moving, Mimi, one of the most charming “Mimis”, I have had the chance, to admire, whose character she sang with both, utmost sensitivity, and controlled power; clear sounding, resolute, cristalline, Italian soprano, Federica Lombardi, was wonderful, incredibly beautiful and engaging, and totally believable as a talented, yet lonely seamstress, first incredibly shy, and then utterly happy.
Thirdly, I especially wanted to congratulate Ukrainian soprano, Olga Kulchynska, for her highly fun and subtle depiction of the seductive, joyful, and truly kind, Musetta, the vibrant and highly likeable, singer/”courtisane”/”lorette”.
So, to sum up my feelings, about Puccini’s “La Bohème”, admired last Tuesday, at the MET Opera, in great company: what a terrific and moving “verismo” work based on a “realistic” bohemian story, set to awesomely beautiful, heart stirring, and harmonious music, and what subtle arias. And how terrific to celebrate the importance of vibrant friendships and love, and the great strength, that joy, kindness, love and attentiveness, bring to all, in the face of illness. And how spectacular especially, are three of the main characters: Polenzani, as the dashing, attractive and besotted poet, what a moving, charming, and beautiful sounding “Mimi”, Lombardi embodies perfectly, and how entertaining is Kulchynska, as the joyful, seductive and kind “Musetta”. And finally, what a beautiful, timeless, and utterly fun Zeffirelli production, allowing us to dive into 19th century Paris with utmost delight.
And not to be missed!
Until next time friends!
Eternal butterflies 😊