About us / Contact

The Classical Music Network

New York

Europe : Paris, Londn, Zurich, Geneva, Strasbourg, Bruxelles, Gent
America : New York, San Francisco, Montreal                       WORLD

Your email :



Beloved Bohemians

New York
Metropolitan Opera
12/15/2008 -  and 18, 22*, 26 December 2008 and 3, 6, 10 January 2009
Giacomo Puccini: La Bohème
Maija Kovalevska (Mimì), Ramon Vargas (Rodolfo), Mariusz Kwiecien (Marcello), Susanna Phillips (Musetta), Oren Gradus (Colline), Tommi Hakala (Schaunard), Paul Plishka (Benoit and Alcindoro), Daniel Clark-Smith (Parpignol), John Shelhart (Customhouse sergeant), Joseph Turi (Customhouse officer)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus, Donald Palumbo (Chorus Master), Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Frederic Chaslin (Conductor)
Franco Zeffirelli (Production), Franco Zeffirelli (Set Design), Peter J. Hall (Costume Design), Gil Wechsler (Lighting Design), J. Knighten Smit (Stage Director)

R. Vargas (Rodolfo), M. Kovalevska (Mimì) (© Marty Sohn)

La Bohème occupies a rather unusual position in the world of opera. It’s loved by those who know a lot about music in general and opera in particular; it’s also loved by those who know very little. Its appeal has been tremendous and long lasting, and because of that appeal, it has been performed with astonishing frequency. This performance was the 1,203rd at the Metropolitan Opera since it premiered there on December 26, 1900. It also marked Puccini’s 150th birthday.

Why the love affair with La Bohème? The most obvious explanation is that we are all in love with love and warmed and supported by friendships. Love and friendship are not uncommon subjects of operas but in La Bohème, there are no other subjects. There are no villains, no duels, no politics, no class tensions, and no vendettas. These are warm, generous, and loving characters who cherish each other. Their story, told with ravishingly beautiful music, grips the heart precisely because anyone who has ever been in love, or loved and been loved by friends, can understand it. And that’s just about everybody.

When attending a performance of La Bohème, one never sees people in the audience, their brows furrowed, anxiously trying to assimilate the twists and turns of a convoluted opera plot. Indeed, the plot could not be simpler.

Four poor artists living in a Parisian garret, are in dire financial straits. Despite adversity, they are still able to laugh and tease each other about the vagaries of careers dependent on the dual uncertainties of creative inspiration and public approval. Rodolfo, the poet, falls in love with Mimì, a young and beautiful neighbor, who is in fragile health. They quarrel and separate. Meanwhile, Marcello, the painter, loves Musetta, a high-spirited fun-loving young woman -- a coquette with a heart of gold. They also quarrel and become estranged. They reconcile. For Mimì and Rodolfo, reconciliation comes too late. She returns to the home of the four friends, terribly ill, and there she dies.

La Bohème is filled with gorgeous melodies that audiences can and do hum after they leave the opera house. Or even before. I have been at performances where angry glances or even nudges were required to silence audience members who simply got carried away.

Especially at a time when much contemporary music requires informed listeners prepared to make a considerable effort to understand and engage, it is easy to assume that being complex – even arcane – is a prerequisite of great art.

One contemporary composer, who has argued against such a view is Frederic Chaslin. In his book, Music in Every Sense, he writes that much of contemporary music does not engage the audience because it is insufficiently accessible. He has been working on his own accessible opera, based on Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights -- not in a garret but in a houseboat on the Seine. Chaslin is also a pianist and a conductor. He conducted this performance of La Bohème, the most accessible opera in the traditional repertoire. Indeed, it is so accessible that it was the favorite opera of both King Edward VII and King George V (the grandfather of Queen Elizabeth), neither of whom was known to be particularly fond of opera.

La Bohème was first performed February 1, 1896, at the Teatro Regio, Turin, with Arturo Toscanini conducting. Audiences and critics were shocked, not by jarring and incomprehensible music (as was the case seventeen years later when Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps premiered in Paris), but by the characters. Accustomed as they were to operas with characters remote from their own lives (Götterdämmerung and Falstaff were the other operas on the Turin calendar that season), they reacted to the bohemians with consternation and confusion. Mimì, Rodolfo and the others were not all that different from people who might be encountered on the trip home from the opera house. They could have even wandered in off the street.

The shock of the new quickly wore off. By April, at a performance in Palermo, the audience reaction was so passionately positive that Rodolfo and Mimì, having changed out of their costumes, returned to the stage, wearing their own clothes, to repeat the death scene.

Composing some two decades after Wagner systematically began to use leitmotifs, Puccini employed them as well. In La Bohème, these short themes serve as reminders of what has gone before. Indeed, the music of act four repeats much of the music of act one. The result is poignant and also psychologically realistic: someone who is dying might well remember the good times with a mixture of happiness and regret. And Mimì did come back to the place she met Rodolfo, her one love, to die in his arms. With extraordinary economy of musical and dramatic means, Puccini created believable fully-rounded characters embracing the comic, transcendent and tragic aspects of life. The sad trajectory of the plot is interrupted periodically by games and fun and laughter. This mixture of comedy and tragedy might also have proved disconcerting to the first audiences of La Bohème.

Ramon Vargas as Rodolfo gave a deeply affecting performance. In his act one aria, “Che gelida manina” (Your tiny hand is frozen), he displayed a beautiful tone, eloquent phrasing and superb acting. Maija Kovalevska, the winner of Plácido Domingo’s Operalia World Opera Competition in 2006, was Mimì. In her act one aria, “Mi chiamo Mimì” (My name is Mimì), she sang beautifully throughout her range with a dark dusky color. She conveyed strong emotion as well as an affecting fragility befitting Mimì’s precarious medical condition.

At the end of Mimì’s aria, they were both silent and then the moonlight fell across her face. The duet, “O soave fanciulla” (Lovely maid in the moonlight), is one of the most beautiful in all opera. They sang in unison with swelling emotion as they fell in love before our eyes. When they left the stage, the orchestration grew thin, with muted strings and woodwinds. And then the music disappeared into silence.

In the second act, the stage was literally stuffed with people and animals and activity. It was vintage – in every sense of the word – Zeffirelli. In the midst of all the hubbub, we were introduced to Musetta, (Susanna Phillips in her Met debut), the love interest of Marcello. She was superb -- flirtatious, animated, lovable, and with a voice to match. Her “Quando me’n vo” (As I wander through the streets, the people turn to admire my beauty) drew prolonged and well deserved applause.

Marcello (Mariusz Kwiecien), came into his own in act three, as he tried to be a friend and confidante to both Mimì and Rodolfo. He sang with a beautiful deep and resonant voice and a convincing stage presence.

Act four is the heartbreaker, of course. Mimì returns to Rodolfo to die in his arms. The levity of the friends before her arrival made the tragedy of her death all the more poignant. The two other Bohemians, Schaunard (Tommi Hakala) and Colline (Oren Gradus) gave fine performances, with the latter’s aria “Vecchia zimarra senti”, (Goodbye old coat) extremely moving and beautifully sung. In Mimì’s last aria, “Sono andati” (Have they gone?), her last expression of love for Rodolfo, Kovalevska sang with lyricism, deep feeling, and intensity.

The chorus and the orchestra acquitted themselves brilliantly, as usual. Under Chaslin’s baton, the orchestra gave full expression to the lyricism and the poignancy of the love music and both chorus and orchestra joined to provide a rousing chorus for act 2. Chaslin’s handling of the dynamic shifts at the ends of the first and fourth acts were particularly sensitive.

Puccini could not have wished for a better birthday gift.

Arlene Judith Klotzko



Copyright ©ConcertoNet.com