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Monday, October 15, 2012

Musical Notes on La bohème

Musical Notes
By Leslie Dala


It has been famously documented that the 1896 premiere of La bohème, in Turin, was met with reactions ranging from lukewarm to indifferent. What did those audiences miss in this work that went on to become one of the most successful operas of all time?

Perhaps it was the intimate scale of the story. Puccini declared that he was not interested in portraying great historical characters but rather simple people,  whom he brought to life with such sincerity that we cannot help but be drawn in. If his early audiences expected the grandiose and did not receive it did they somehow feel cheated?

From the opening of the work - which is rambunctious, racy an dfull of life with punctuated and coarse rhythms - we are thrown into the lives of Marcello the painter and Rodolfo the poet, full of joie de vivre and not afraid to risk poverty, hunger and cold in pursuit of their dreams. We meet Colline the philosopher and Schaunard the musician (ironically, the most materially successful of the quartet), each meriting his own musical theme - direct, recognizable and filled with vitality.

We instantly warm to them. Their wit is quick and they truly live the motto “one for all and all for one”. They decide to dine out on Christmas Eve on Schaunard’s lavish earnings but Rodolfo hangs back to finish a writing assignment. He meets Mimi, a frail creature whose simplicity and sincerity disarm him to the point that he can’t help but fall in love. The last part of Act One is one of the most transformative in opera and we are swept away with Rodolfo who declares: In te ravviso il sogno chi’io vorrei sempre sognar (“in you I recognize the dream that I wish to eternally
dream”).

Act Two is a whirlwind of sounds, colours and even scents (the delicacies from the shops of the Latin Quarter), not to mention the introduction of bombshell Musetta. Frivolity is the order of the day and we witness a happy reunion of old flames amidst the throngs of people. In all of this Puccini delivers a symphoniclike scherzo which rises and falls with the action. Who can stay this happy for long? Not the characters of La bohème.

In Act Three, both Mimi and Rodolfo pour their hearts out to the most heartbreaking music. This culminates in an exquisite quartet in which Mimi and Rodolfo agree to postpone their break-up: Soli
d’inverno e cosa da morire! Mentre a primavera c’e compagno il sol
(“to be alone in winter is deadly but at least in springtime one has the sun as a companion”). Meanwhile, Marcello and Musetta
rail at each other as she delivers a real scorcher: Io detesto quegli amanti.... che la fanno da mariti! (“I despise those lovers who act like husbands”).

In Act Four, we once again witness the four friends hamming it up to escape the squalor of their existence. The helplessness of this situation is driven home when Musetta suddenly bursts in
with Mimi, who is dying and wishes to see her lover once more.

The last minutes of La bohème are among the most heartbreaking in all of theatre. When Mimi dies, it is the orchestra that realizes it with a B Minor triad announced most prominently by the horns.
The pent-up anguish and helplessness is finally released like a giant tidal wave in the brief orchestral postlude over Rodolfo’s cries of “Mimi! Mimi!”.

Puccini was the last of the great Italian opera composers who held melody, lyricism and the vocal art in the highest regard. He may not have changed music history in the ways that Beethoven, Wagner and Stravinsky did, and he may not have delivered a grandiose spectacle, but he struck a chord with singers and opera-goers the world over, a resonance which is unlikely to fade as long as there are voices to sing and ears and eyes to savour.

Leslie Dala is VO’s Associate Conductor/Chorus Director

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