Opry Links # 86: "La Boheme" Handicap
Today's Saturdee Opry Links is another "opera handicap," this
time with Puccini's "La Boheme," the most popular opera of all.
Why so beloved? Put simply: it has everything. Gloriously intelligent,
beautiful, affecting music, start to finish---with themes for different
characters and events interwoven with Wagnerian skill. Indeed, the music for
“Boheme” stands alone in all opera in terms of great melody and deep feeling; it
is as if it was all written in one moment of sheer inspiration. And as for the
story---a bunch of young mid-19th century bohemian types struggling along in the
latin quarter of Paris---it could not be more universal. Ambition, bonhomie,
courage, jealousy, love, joy, ecstasy, illness, despair, heartbreak, tragedy
make up the tale---you know, just like life! With the added poignancy of
Christmas. . .
Puccini’s extraordinary gift for empathy goes a long way in explaining how and
why “Boheme” is so relentlessly affecting, no matter how many times experienced.
He inhabited and brought to life characters with a vividness rivaling
Shakespeare, and that is certainly unique in all opera. When a friend came
across the composer at home, in tears, Puccini explained that he had just killed
“my Mimi” (the lead character in “Boheme")--- so deeply was he moved by the
story he wrote and musically illustrated. And so. . .
It is Christmas Eve in the garret (rooftop hovel) shared by Marcello the artist,
Rodolfo the poet, Colline the philosopher, and Schaunard the musician. They are
broke, and it is blistering cold. Rodolfo actually burns the manuscript of his
play for warmth, and Colline arrives to say he was unable to pawn books to raise
funds for food. Schaunard enters triumphantly with a loaf of bread, a little
fish, wine and cigars---the pay from a private gig---but says the supplies must
be saved, and instead announces he will take all out to dinner at the Café
Momus. Rodolfo stays behind for a few minutes, in order to finish writing an
article. There is a meek, timid knock at his door, and he opens it to find a
pale, wan young woman, Mimi, who lives upstairs. Her candle has gone out, and
she asks for a light. As Rodolfo obliges, Mimi nearly passes out, and he insists
that she come in and sit and have a little wine. They introduce one another with
the arias, "Che Gelida Manina" ("How cold your little hand is"), and "Mi
Chiamano Mimi" ("My name is Mimi.") With English subtitles. Yes, yes, I know.
Pavarotti---Rodolfo---looks like he's getting plenty to eat. You have to suspend
disbelief. Note that the big note in “Che Gelida Manina” comes on the word,
“hope” (“la speranza.”)
Translation, “Che Gelida Manina:”
Translation, “Mi Chiamano Mimi:”
And here is the greatest Mimi, many say. . .
2. After the introductions, Rodolfo and Mimi are interrupted by Rodolfo's
friends yelling from the street below, asking why he is late in joining them. He
answers that he is not alone, and they teasingly laugh. Rodolfo turns and is
frozen in amazement at the sight of Mimi bathed in moonlight. As his friends
fade in the distance, singing "Travo la poesia" ("He's found his poem at last"),
Rodolfo and Mimi declare their love---or at least infatuation---for each other.
(This is opera, after all.) Here is the landmark duet, “O Soave Fanciulla” (“Oh,
beautiful girl in the moonlight. . .”) They leave together for the Cafe Momus.
Here are Gianni Raimondi and Mirella Freni from the Italian filmed production of
Scroll down for translation:
AND, if you want to hear two magnificent voices together, here are Jussi
Bjorling and Renata Tebaldi:
3. As for other “Boheme” highlights, all of act two is a highlight. No need to
excerpt anything. You all know “Musetta’s Waltz,” or “Quando me’n vo,” I’m sure.
The whole act is a delight, a masterpiece unto itself, rollicking depiction of
the Café Momus on Christmas Eve. The emotions run from joy to hilarity to
poignancy. It’s a tour-de-force of operatic writing and staging. A wow. First
here is "Quanda me'n vo," with gorgeous Adriana Martino (whose career was
mysteriously short), and then a link to the entire act.
Full Act 2: (from 33:50)---from the great film version of the Zeffirelli
And a smaller production, with English subtitles:
Act 3 of "La Boheme" is gorgeous, and absolutely wrenching. It contains some of
the cleverest vocal writing in all opera, specifically a quartet during which
Rodolfo and Mimi reunite, as the other main couple in the story, Marcello and
Musetta, separate. “Cleverest” sells it short, though---the quartet is genius,
and just transportingly beautiful. Here is part of the act. Mimi has gone to
Marcello’s café to seek his counsel about Rodolfo, who has become insanely
jealous since she took up with a viscount. Rodolfo arrives, and Mimi hides and
listens as he tells Marcello the truth about his behavior toward Mimi: that he
knows she is dying, and it is tearing him apart. Mimi reveals herself at 9:20,
and the welling music that accompanies the moment is almost too much to bear.
Rodolfo and Mimi renew their love in a heart-rending duet, at least temporarily,
vowing to stay together until spring. Marcello and Musetta appear, fighting as
they are wont to do, and somehow these two dramatic sequences of opposite event
merge magnificently. Takes the breath away. Note: the act begins with a loud,
chordal “buh-BUMP!”---and ends with exactly the same orchestral outburst. It’s a
kind of frame. (You probably won’t hear this in the performance, as the applause
always drowns out the second “buh-Bump!”) Pavarotti and Izzo D'Amico. With
English subtitles. The principal aria is "Donde Lieta Usci," or "Whence happy
Translation of "Donde Lieta Usci:"
Act 4 of "Boheme" contains the lone baritone aria from the opera, “Addio Vecchio
Zimarra,” or “Goodbye, Old Coat.” One of the bohemians, Colline, seeing that
Mimi is deathly ill, decides to pawn his favorite coat to buy her medicine.
Here it is with James Morris:
And for fun, with Ezio Pinza:
Reunited at last, Rodolfo and Mimi remember how they met, and pledge their love
anew, despite Mimi's grave illness. Colline returns with medicine he purchased
by pawning his favorite coat, but it is too late. To watch this is to easily
understand why Puccini himself broke down and wept, inconsolable, after writing
it. Neil Shicoff as Rodolfo, and Ileana Cotrubas as Mimi. With English
subtitles. The principal aria is "Sono Andati?" Or "Are they gone?"
"Sono Andati" in Italian and English:
Zeffirelli's production of "Boheme" is justifiably thought to be some kind of
perfection. Here is footage of him at work:
Footage of Zeffirelli directing “Boheme:”
And for those of you seeking more punishment, here is a movie version of the
entire opera, with Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon. And English subtitles.
9. FINAL BOW:
Just for fun, here is young Pavarotti singing “Che Gelida Manina:"
Saturdee Opry Links ENCORE!
Mario Lanza and Kathryn Grayson live on stage at the Hollywood Bowl, 1948.
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