Sunday, September 23, 2007

Puccini: La Boheme, The Washington Opera, on the Mall

Today (Sunday, September 23, 2007) the Washington National Opera performed La Boheme (“The Bohemian”) by Giacomo Puccini (1896), libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, based on the novel “Scenes de la vie de boheme” (“Scenes from the Bohemian Life”) by Henry Murger. The outdoor Jumbotron theater was set up between the Washington Monument and Constitution Avenue. Arturo Toscanini conducted the world premiere in 1896, and in the twentieth century Toscanini would get a reputation for taking standard orchestral works “fast” (the opposite of Otto Klemperer).

The four act opera moves quickly, taking 110 minutes (about the length of an average film) with a twenty minute intermission. The central female character is Mimi ( a seamstress), who is dying of tuberculosis. In the big city garret loft there live some artists, most of all Rodolfo, a poet; Marcello, a painter; Schaunard, a musician, and Colline, a philosopher. (It wasn’t until I moved to Minneapolis in 1997 and mingled with the university community through the local Libertarian Party that I began to realize that philosophy, as a major, was more common than I had though.) Early on, the Marcello and Rodolfo burn Rodolfo’s play manuscript, he then starts over. Supposedly out of boredom or writer’s block, that was a little hard to understand; in the modern world, an artists is likely to save his work (literally on a computer) and back it up. As the plot develops, Marcello’s former lover, Musetta, livens things up, and the halfway point of the opera is a high note with a fireworks display. Director Mariusz Trelinski, indicates in his notes, that “the bohemians” have no sense of richness or poverty; money or cash on hand varies from day to day. It’s “paycheck to paycheck” living. In the modern world, they might be vulnerable to payday loan sharks.

At the end, Mimi does pass away. The other bohemiams are left to balance the relative importance of one’s own art, and love of other people for the sake of love. The music switches to blocked chords in c# minor and dies away. The shocking effect is that of nothingness; there is nothing noble about death from a wasting disease (although in opera the singing disguises the wasting; when she dies, her arm just hangs limp.) As a whole, the musical style has a lot of natural minor and melodic line. One wonders if the very end might have inspired Maher’s opening of the 5th Symphony. The music score of the opera is here on an Indiana University music score library website.

Noting that the “heroine” is Mimi, it seems to me that the bizarre longstanding NBC soap opera “Days of our Lives” uses opera and literary characters as names of similar characters in its own story. Mimi (not in the story line now) similar temperament to the heroine of the opera. Nick, in the soap opera, is obviously based on the lead character of FitzGerald’s The Great Gatsby. Curiously, the geeky Nick is forced to balance work and people just as the people in the opera.

The Puccini opera has inspired some films, such as Thriller by Sally Potter, and most notably the musical and movie Rent (music by Jonathan Larson), in which AIDS replaces consumption, and the drag queen Angel dies.

In 1980, right after Reagan was elected, I saw “Turandot” at the Dallas Opera in the old State Fair theater. It was completed by Franco Alfano and has a choral ending that echoes the ending of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand” and Alfano gave Puccini’s late style a more Mahlerian kind of sound.

In 1996, I saw Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele, composed at age 26 (based on Goethe’s Faus) with its famous angelic chorus (actually performed twice) and “Satan’s whistle” and Witches Sabbath, at the Kennedy Center with the Washington Opera.

The tuberculosis wasting theme calls to mind Britten’s opera “Death in Venice” (1973), based on Mann’s novel, which I saw in New York in the 1970s, and the linear musical style recalls the first movement of the Mahler Ninth (especially true of the orchestral suite). I saw Peter Grimes in Dallas in the 1980s, and Billy Budd at the Washington Opera in 2004. "Peter Grimes" explores the theme of public suspicion of older men with minors (a troubling theme in today’s news), and "Billy Budd" explores unit cohesion and prejudice in the 18th Century British Navy, in a manner that anticipates today’s debate about gays in the military. The “All Hands” chorus near the end has a bizarre harmonic effectiveness, and the sea burial ending again echoes the Spartan late Mahler style. I’ve always thought that the Britten War Requiem resembles the Requiem Mahler would have written had he lived long enough.

It’s interesting how often opera explores important social issues. I’ve thought that a composer like John Coragliano ought to tackle “Smallville” and write an opera about the teenage Clark Kent from the social perspective of hiding being “different.”

Update: Dec, 25, 2009

On Dec. 23, PBS Weta aired the sumptuous film "La Boheme" directed by Robert Dornhelm, from Emerging Pictures. The PBS link is here.
(I had trouble with this Shockwave trailer in Vista in Chrome and Mozilla; IE worked OK and Windows XP was OK with it in all browsers.)
The imdb list is here.

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