D'Ana Lombard (Mimi) and Yongzhao Yu (Rodolfo) in La Bohème, Act I, Wolf Trap Opera, August 2016
(photo by Scott Suchman for Wolf Trap Opera)
Henry Mürger was a working-class writer born in Paris, the son of a tailor and a shop-worker. In his youth Mürger was so poor that his group of friends, who included the photographer Nadar, called themselves the Buveurs d'Eau (Water Drinkers) because they could not afford to buy a drink when they went out. Most of us have been there.
Mürger wrote about the desperate poverty he and his friends endured while trying to pursue their artistic interests in a book called Scènes de la vie de bohème. It was first read as a self-published serial, a feuilleton included as a literary supplement in another publication. Mürger eventually gathered the stories into a book published in 1851, when he was not yet 30 years old. For Mürger it was the combination of poverty and artistic drive that made the life of a bohemian, as he defined it, "any man who enters into the arts without any other means of existence except the art itself." The book made Mürger's name, and he went on to have some success as a poet and playwright.
In the 1890s, Giacomo Puccini and his librettists, Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, adapted the story into an opera, La Bohème. It premiered in 1896 in Turin, followed just one year later by an alternate version composed by Ruggero Leoncavallo. This opera has become intensely popular with audiences. As proof, we have reviewed a never-ending stream of productions over the years, including from Washington National Opera (in 2007 and 2014), the Castleton Festival in 2011, and Santa Fe Opera (2011 and 2007). Wolf Trap Opera turned to it again this summer, having taken this long to recuperate after Jens vivisected both the work and a performance there in 2004. It returned to the stage of the Filene Center on Friday night in a staging that was not so successful.
La Bohème may not be for everyone, but it was one of the first operas that made a major impression on me as a teenager, so I have a weak spot for it to this day. The opera keeps to a few scenes from the book, focusing on the characters of Rodolfo (who represents Mürger himself, the struggling poet), Schaunard (the musician Alexandre Schanne), Marcello (the painter François Tabar), and Colline (the philosopher Jean Wallon), whose coat of many pockets is always heavy with books). The Café Momus, where the second act is set, was a favorite haunt for writers on the Rue des Prêtres-Saint-Germain-l'Auxerrois, near the Louvre. Rodolfo's garret is on the Rue de la Tour-d'Auvergne, near Montmartre, the same street where Mürger lived. It is an intensely nostalgic work, and it makes just about everyone who hears it think fondly of their student days when they did not have two dimes to rub together after the rent was paid.
Grace Jean, Strong ‘La Bohème’ at Wolf Trap makes a good case for more opera there (Washington Post, August 8)
Paul Curran updated the setting to the end of World War I. This made one question why Mimi was bothering with lighting her candle in the hallway, as well as why young men were still in Paris writing plays and painting canvases. (Even worse, it's been done before.) Erhard Rom designed one large set piece, Rodolfo's garret, that was somewhat cumbersome to roll on and off. A few small backdrop objects suggested the other scenes, as well as several large video screens (designed by S. Katy Tucker) that set the tone of Paris in the winter. The National Symphony Orchestra was again placed at the rear of the stage, with the same problems in amplification noticed last month. In particular, Grant Gershon had almost no way to control the rushing of the singers from behind the set, judging by the number of bad misalignments between the cast and the orchestra, not to mention the balance problems. A truly great production of this opera has eluded Ionarts up to this point, but the best one so far indicates that you need a straightforward production, not too heavy on the sentimentality, and a first-rate conductor who can actually conduct the singers.