CD Reviews | CTD (Briefly Noted) | JFL (Dip Your Ears) | DVD Reviews


Why Do We Love 'La Bohème' So Much?

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.

Other Reviews:

Grace Jean, Strong ‘La Bohème’ at Wolf Trap makes a good case for more opera there (Washington Post, August 8)
The awkward body-mike amplification at the outdoor Filene Center made it difficult to judge the quality of the voices in this production. Soprano D’Ana Lombard, who was Rosina in Ghosts of Versailles last summer, had the range for Mimi, if not the floating vocal quality that makes her seem most innocent. Reginald Smith, Jr., who was an exceptionally strong Count in last summer's Le Nozze di Figaro, was equally powerful here as Marcello, with the same kinds of comic gifts that lightened his presence on stage. The Rodolfo of tenor Yongzhao Yu, new to my ears, seemed strong, but it is impossible to know how the voice would fill a hall when not amplified. Summer Hassan had the sass for Musetta, if not necessarily the laser-focused vocal goods. Shea Owens, who stepped into the role of Junius in The Rape of Lucretia in June at only a week's notice, and Timothy Bruno had capable turns as Schaunard and Colline, respectively.

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.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Interesting that the question posed in the headline is not answered, even superficially. Maybe that's why nobody else has bothered to comment.

I for one, think La Boheme is tiresome, except for the handful of arias and duets. The first act, before Mimi appears, is almost entirely superfluous, and boring. The orchestration is uninspired, sounding like a commonplace movie soundtrack. Most of the choral work is annoying. There is a disconcerting gap in time and circumstances between the first and second acts. The last scene is non-stop morose.

I would love to see what Verdi could have done with this opera!