Beloved “Boheme”: Puccini’s Romantic Opera has something for everyone


Soprano Alyson Cambridge lights up the second act of “La Bohème” as the tumultuous Musetta.

that of Puccini

perhaps the most beloved work of all opera. Its romantic story of starving artists and Parisian courtesans falling in love and facing poverty makes audiences’ hearts beat faster. His great tunes contain some of the most instantly recognizable melodies in classical music. Its dramatic ending is unforgettable and guaranteed to generate tears.

And for those new to opera, this is a great opportunity to sample the art form at its best: it doesn’t take too long. It has a lot of action. And the emotions he explores are universal for all with a heart.

Portland opera begins its

with a sparkling production featuring a cast of promising singers, as well as a massive choir that seemingly puts all of Paris on stage. Director Sandra Bernhard took the action forward, from the original setting of the 1830s to the 1890s – contemporary with the creation of the work, as well as the Impressionist movement, to which the production design pays subtle homage.

bohemian.JPGArturo Chacon-Cruz and Kelly Kaduce play the lovers Rodolfo and Mimi in the Portland Opera production of “La Bohème”.

“It’s a great first opera,” she says. “Whoever goes there will report to someone on stage.”

It’s also a great opera for die-hard fans, rewarding repeat viewings with new perspectives on music and drama.

“The reason to come back again and again is to offer yourself as a human the opportunity to be moved,” says Bernhard. “There are times that will just stop you.”

If you’re new to “Bohemian,” here is some essential background and performance information that can help you get more out of the show. And if you’re a veteran, think of this as your refresher course on one of opera’s greatest hits.

Where it all started

Puccini’s opera, based on Henry Murger’s stories of the bowels of early 19th century Paris, debuted in 1896 under the baton of famous maestro Arturo Toscanini. The initial critical reaction was harsh: “This is an opera that will not have a long life,” wrote one reviewer; another rejected it as an “abdication”.

But the work had public relations as it traveled to England later that year and to the United States in 1897.

Today it is one of the most performed pieces in all of opera. During the 2009-2010 season, 57 productions will be presented in 53 cities around the world, for a total of 301 performances.

Characters

The story of “La Bohème” is simple, with the action centered on two roommates and the women they love. Here are the main players:

Rodolfo:

A struggling poet who manages to make ends meet by writing dispatches for a newspaper called The Beaver. Falls in love with Mimi the moment he lays eyes on her.

Mimicry:

A seamstress who embroiders silk and lace, her hands cold but a warm heart. Has a bad cough that she just can’t shake off.

Marcello:

Painter who shares a cold attic apartment with Rodolfo. Fall in love with Musetta as often as the weather changes.

Musette:

A spirited singer with a knack for flashy clothes. Perfectly happy that older, wealthier men cater to her every whim.

The rest of the gang:

Schaunard (musician), Colline (philosopher), Benoit (owner philandering), Alcindoro (politician with an eye for ladies)

On Youtube

Because “Bohème” is played so often, many productions have been captured on film, with clips available for sampling on youtube.com. Put “La Bohème” in the search function and you can instantly compare how tenors like José Carreras, Roberto Alagna and Placido Domingo approach famous tunes like “Che gelida manina”. There are also many historical clips, allowing you to soak up the rich history of opera.

On DVD

“Bohème” has had unique incarnations. These three – all readily available on DVD – are some of the best.

Franco Zeffirelli’s production in 1981 set the gold standard for classical interpretations of “Bohème”. The original TV show from that era is available, but look for this 2008 high-definition recording, starring Mexican tenor Ramon Vargas and Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu, two of today’s opera’s biggest stars. In HD you can see all the details of Zeffirelli’s design.

Most people know Australian director Baz Luhrmann for “Moulin Rouge” and “Romeo + Juliet”. This 1993 production, recorded live at the Sydney Opera House, moves the action to the late 1950s and has a sort of “West Side Story” feel to it. He recreated the Broadway production earlier this decade with enthusiastic audience response and even rave reviews.

This is Jonathan Larson’s rock adaptation of the story, with the action transplanted from Paris to New York in the 1990s. Listen closely and you will hear echoes of Puccini’s score in some melodies, as well as characters that look a lot like the original roles. He played 12 years on Broadway and this DVD captures the final show of 2008.

On CD

Many recordings of the full opera are available on CD and through iTunes. But the biggest must be the sparkling

which captures the incredible combination of Luciano Pavarotti and Mirella Freni as Rodolfo and Mimi. Pavarotti was at his peak when he sang the role for conductor Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. The success of this recording was a key element for Pavarotti to become a world star.

If you are already familiar with the Pavarotti / Freni recording, explore vocal pyrotechnics in the

featuring opera legend Maria Callas. The soprano, known for her dramatic interpretations of classical roles, creates one of the most haunting final acts imaginable. The CD also features Giuseppe di Stefano, the acclaimed Italian tenor and frequent Callas co-star whose career was cut short by serious vocal problems in the early 1960s, although he lived until 2008.

If you like “Bohème” …

… you’ll want to explore other works by Puccini, as well as other gems of the opera world. Keep an eye out for these operas, one of which is produced by Portland Opera every few years. All are available on CD and DVD.

“Tosca”:

This potboiler has non-stop drama: love, lust, torture, blackmail, murder, execution, and suicide are all there. The only thing he doesn’t have is a dull moment.

“Madame Papillon”:

Another haunting love story between an American sailor and the Japanese woman he leaves behind. One of the greatest soprano roles ever written.

“Turandot”:

Puccini’s last opera was completed after the maestro’s death in 1924. The most famous aria is “Nessun Dorma”, popularized in the 1990s by concerts and recordings by the Three Tenors.

“Cosi Fan Tutte”:

A Mozart masterpiece that explores the lighter side of romance – a pretty comedic counterpoint to “Bohème”. There are fake identities, disguises and incredible laughs. The Portland Opera is performing February 5-13 – just enough to get you in the mood for Valentine’s Day.

What to watch out for in the happiest and busiest act of opera

Most people consider “La Bohème” to be one of the greatest tragic operas. But there’s more to it than heartbreak, thanks to his playful second act, which takes place through the streets of Paris on Christmas Eve and might just be the happiest act in all of opera.

In just 17 minutes, Puccini advances the romantic story while capturing snapshots of everyday life. There is so much going on – and there is so much great music – that we asked director Sandra Bernhard to highlight five things operators should watch out for and their ears should be open.

Follow the poor children:

The 20 kids on stage are divided into haves and have-nots, and Bernhard uses a cool staging trick with the poor kids, making the rascals move across the stage, guiding the audience from singer to singer. “They help guide the audience through the act,” she says.

The grand entrance:

One of the opera’s larger-than-life characters, Musetta, arrives on stage in a bright orange gown and with gigantic, wild, tumultuous laughs. “She could stop traffic – and she does,” says Bernhard.

The great outdoors:

The grand entrance is quite a set-up for one of the greatest “Bohemian” tunes, “Musetta’s Waltz”. The tune speaks of his desire to be noticed, says Bernhard. “It’s a show, and she’s really good at it. She plays two men and a whole crowd, and her control of this situation is quite something.”

Accessories in abundance:

It’s Christmas Eve and the streets are filled with last minute shoppers flocking to toy vendors, milliners, bakers and candy vendors. Their carts are loaded with wooden toys, hats, coats and treats inspired by vintage lithographs and advertisements. “That’s all people would find on the streets at Christmas,” says Bernhard. “And we have a bird seller. At the turn of the century, it would have been a big deal to buy a Christmas bird for your family.”

Crowds:

Everyone on stage – not just the main characters – has their story, says Bernhard. Notice how the waiters in the cafe have a distinct pecking order, and how well-to-do children all have nannies. There are a pair of obnoxious American tourists and a full marching band.

Video: Behind the scenes at Portland Opera’s “La Bohème”.

Pictures: Image gallery of “La Bohème”.

About Madeline J. Carter

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