LA BOHEME – PUCCINI – ROYAL OPERA HOUSE
On 28 February I was back once again at ROH for the performance of Puccini’s La Boheme, with libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illicos, written in 1896, combining both comedy and pathos. The opera is adapted from “Scenes de la vie de Boheme “. The composer wrote the music in just eight months; the two librettists took two years! The ROH orchestra was conducted by Massimo Zanetti. (The first performance in 1896 in Turin was conducted by Toscanini.)
Greek Elena Kelessidi and American Katherine Naglestaad played the leading feminine roles of Mimi and Musetta respectively. The three main male characters were played by Ramon Vargas as Rodolfo, a poet; Dalibor Jenis from Bratislava as Marcello, a painter; and Tomas Thomason, a philosopher.
Basically the opera is the tragic love story of Mimi and Rodolfo who fall in love. Kelessidi is very believable as the delicate Mimi and Vargas a robust tenor. In contrast is the light – hearted affair of Musetta and Marcello. The other very high - spirited in contrast to frail Mimi and Jenis a charismatic tenor. But at the end when Mimi dies love and youth are lost.
Puccini was influenced in writing the opera by his own impoverished student days in Milan. Above all, the opera is about real life and believable characters. (Puccini said, “I love the simple things “.)
The opera is set in 1830 in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Act II’s setting in the Café Momus (or coffee house) was not only a meeting place for the young bohemians and their friends but also a place to keep warm when they were all (as the saying goes) “ starving in a garret “!
The 4-Act opera opens in a studio and includes the famous aria “Che Gelida Manina “(your tiny hand is frozen, let me warm it into life) sung by Rodolfo, when Mimi a young neighbour and seamstress has come to his room to ask for a light for her candle. She is coughing – already a victim of tuberculosis, a 19th century plage in Paris – and he thinks how ill she looks. He asks her about herself and she sings “Mi chia-ma-na Mimi “(I’m always called Mimi). As he leaves to join his friends who are calling him he turns to see Mimi bathed in moonlight “O soave fanciulla “(lovely maid in the moonlight) he sings. She then leaves with him and they go to join the revelry in the street.
Act II takes place at the Christmas market outside Café Momus. A wonderful Christmas crowd scene is re-enacted with market stalls and sellers of all kinds of things. Musetta comes along and sings her famous Waltz Song (As through the streets) about Paris and the wonderful life she has.
Act III takes place outside the Customs House at the Barriere d’Enfer including the Farewell Duet of Rodolfo and Mimi.
Act IV sees our characters back in the studio of Act I. Musetta says Mimi has collapsed outside. The friends carry her in and place her gently on a bed. This Act has some of the opera’s most touching moments with Colline selling his old coat to help to buy medicine for the dying Mimi and Musetta pawning her jewels to buy medicine and to buy for Mimi the fur muff that she has always wanted. When Rodolo realises Mimi is dying he throws himself onto the bed in final embrace.
Incidentally, now back in the West End – at Prince of Wales Theatre – is Rent. The 1995 New York musical roughly transposed Puccini’s La Boheme to Manhattan’s Lower East with Aids instead of tuberculosis, and drug addicts, drag queens, gays and lesbians instead of bohemians, returns in a zippy touring production by Paul Kerryson. Adam Rickitt does not cast well but Debbie Kurup’s dying Mimi and Damien Flood as her lover are quite easy on the eye.
The term “ Rent “ as the title could mean one of two things: “ rent- boy “ a term for homosexual sex or “ rent “ as in the cost of payment for one’s room or lodgings. The bohemians featured in La Boheme were always hiding from their landlord who was coming after them because they had neglected to pay their rent!!!