Puccini’s La Boheme

The star attraction of Vienna State Opera’s La Boheme are the stage sets, especially Franco Zeffirelli’s bustling cafe scene on two levels. These were designed in the 1960s, but still stunning-like a Manet impressionist painting come to life. So it’s brave of Vienna not to have updated them with the latest minimalist concept transposed to the 21st century. Zeffirelli’s immaculately painted detail is true to Puccini’s obsession with realism, here social realism. Yes, this Paris burgeoning with artists is long past, but it endures through Puccini’s music.
La Boheme is autobiographical, recalling scenes and characters from Puccini’s life as an impoverished student in Milan, but, unembittered, burnished in a soft golden light. It remembers not the desperate poverty, hunger, but celebrates the camaraderie, close friendships, and youthful optimism. (Lang)
The garrett- peeling roof with two holes, the furniture threadbare, junk. Puccini gave detailed stage directions. Bearded Rodolfo (Ramon Vargas) in frock-coat, waistcoat, and bow tie, declaims, the fiery drama he’s writing will warm them: throws his manuscript, an ardent love scene, into the fire. Marcello (Adrian Eröd) is painting the Red Sea. The pawn shops are closed over Christmas. But they’re joined by musician Schaunard (Alessio Arduini) who got lucky and brings in some food. The script is brilliant, witty, plausible.
And Puccini’s score dispensing with overture, we’re swept away by the opening motif- Rodolfo’s -representing young, romantic, unbounded love. Agitated chords, anything but maudlin, suggest a bunch of young guys joking, determined to have fun. So, interrupted by the landlord demanding arrears, they rib Benoit (Marcus Pelz), in a brocade smoking jacket and embroidered fez, who boasts about ‘the pretty girls he has, now and then’, (the skinny ones are so morose, like his wife); and they eject him for besmirching their ‘virtue’.
They go out on the town. Rodolfo stays to write an article; and as they exit- ‘Be careful on the stairs in the dark’ he warns -as one of them falls.
That detail is crucial, (in Puccini’s dramatic authenticity), as a prelude to the knock on the door from Mimi: ‘I’m sorry, my candle’s gone out.’ She’s ‘so pale’, she excuses herself, a little out of health. She collapses in his armchair, her head to one side. ‘What shall I do now?’- ‘A little wine?’- ‘Just a little.’ Maija Kovaleska’s affecting soprano sounds feint, not feeble. She and Ramon Vargas truly enact their scene of (literally) fumbling introduction. ‘How silly of me! Where is my key?’ The candle goes out. They’re on their knees searching – Puccini’s orchestration playful. He holds her hand- How cold your hand is (Che gelida manina!) – and helps her up. Luckily the moon is shining. Vargas, as if blocking the door, tells her about himself. Chi son!- Sono un poeta…E come vivo?- vivo. ‘And how do I live? I live.’ In dreams he’s a millionaire. Occasionally all his riches are stolen by two beautiful eyes. In this great aria, Vargas, a fine tenor, is modest, sincere: he eschews the vituoso’s swagger.
And she? (Kovalevska) Mi chiamano Mimi. La storia mia e breve. ‘People call me Mimi.’ She embroiders flowers. Artlessly sung by Kovalevska with such fresh charm; her high notes are a quite natural progression of her joy. She sings she doesn’t know about poetry; seldom goes to church, but prays to God; lives alone in her little room. ‘But when the sun rises… the first kiss of Spring is mine’. Vargas is sitting in his armchair, staring benignly. She, Kovalevska, a stunning brunette, is wearing a simple long gown, with prim, white collar.
Act 2, a Paris Christmas market, bustling stalls front of stage, children everywhere: behind, and above, the silhouetted facades of a long shopping boulevard. The stalls are cleared away to reveal Cafe Momus, hanging lamps, oak panels, the lot. Rodolfo and Mimi are centre stage. Rodolfo has bought Mimi the bonnett she’s always wanted.
Musetta, determined to make Marcello jealous, appears with her rich, older man. Ildiko Raimondi, blonde, wearing a scarlet satin cloak, steals the show. Raimondi’s Musetta, wild and flamboyant, is the very opposite of Kovalevska’s delicate Mimi. And Musetta, constantly feuding with Marcello, their stormy relationship is a foil to Mimi/Rodolfo’s.
Musetta has a tantrum, throws a tray, topples the table. How can he be jealous of ‘this old woman'(Alcindor)? Casting aside her red cloak, Raimondi’s stunning black, red-trimmed extravaganza is out of the Follie Bergere; or Toulouse -Lautrec poster. Raimondi’s aria Quando me’n vo soletta per la via is a tour-de-force. ‘People turn to look at me: they all admire my beauty.’ Turning to Marcello who’s avoiding her,’You hide your pain , but it will torture you to death.’ Raimondi’s high notes are to bewonder. She emits a shrill scream- the pain in her foot! – showing off her white petticoats for the bumbling, helpless Alcindor (Pelz). ‘The bill so soon?’
A troop of soldiers, a brass band, led by a drum major, pull the crowds on the overhead stage. The gentleman will pay. They merge with the crowds of Zeffirelli’s spectacular, cinematic set.
By contrast, Act 3’s snow -covered stage: left, a customs barrier,and in Puccini’s realism, street sweepers-‘we’re freezing’ -demand they open up. Milk maids pass through with butter, cheese, eggs. But Mimi’s basket is empty. Kovelevska- now with a bonnett, but no gloves- asks for the tavern with the artist, seeks Marcello’s help. She sings, Rodolfo loved her, but -she thinks-he’s consumed by jealousy. (‘One step, one word, and he becomes suspicious.’) Kovalevska seemed a little underpowered. The applause was restrained. I found her endearing.
Baritone Adrian Eröd is very good as Marcello, here in duet with Rodolfo. Vargas sings powerfully, ‘I thought my heart was dead. She brought it to life.’ Marcello retorts, ‘Love without laughter is tedium,’ and – almost jostling Vargas- complains, ‘Musetta is a flirt, and makes eyes at everyone.’ And plaintively, ‘I try in vain to conceal my pain.’
Rodolfo knows Mimi is terribly ill, weakening every day. (His room is damp and cold.) Vargas, a golden tenor, sings with warmth and heart-rending honesty. Mimi is a flower faded by poverty; love alone cannot restore her health.
Mimi revealed by her coughing, has overheard her death sentence: she’s going back to her embroidery. In their duet Vargas and Kovalvska were blistering. Being alone in winter is intolerable; Rodolfo’s love will mitigate her suffering. By contrast, right of stage, Musetta and Marcello , the tempestuous lovers, ever-arguing. ‘You’re behaving like a husband,’ Musetta throwing her cloak at him. Meanwhile Mimi and Rodolfo pledge ‘I am yours forever. We’ll part when Spring comes. If only winter would never end…’
In Act 4, Puccini displays his mastery of dramatic timing. Rodolfo and Marcello are bemoaning their absent lovers. Schaunard, lucky again, enters with food. But their reverie is disturbed by a distraught Musetta -Raimondi now in sobre maroon- accompanied by a pale Mimi, who can barely stand. Mimi is terminally ill. Lying on Rodolfo’s bed, she sings, new life surges in her. ‘Do they have wine, coffee?’ Such poverty ! She’ll be dead in half an hour, one comments.
Their poverty is detailed, but never sentimentalised, endured in good humour. ‘I’m so cold. If only I had a muff. They’re all starring at me,’ as she gratefully recognises her friends. Musetta offers to sell her earings to bring a doctor. And the philosopher Colline (bass Jongmin Park) sings (impressively) an elegy to the old coat he must part with.
As their Act 1 love theme is recapitulated, she asks have they gone. She only pretended to sleep so she could be alone with him. ‘You are my love and my entire life, Vargas sings, she’s still as beautiful as the dawn. She corrects him, you mean the sunset. They reminisce, Vargas and Kovlavevska powerfully enacting their scene. She sings her refrain, They call me Mimi’. She knows he’d found the key ‘very quickly’; in the dark, she couldn’t see him blush.
She looks radiant, but lies back to cough. The muff now on, her hands will never be cold again . (Money squandered!) ‘Mimi!’ cries out Vargas, his grief inconsolable.
Those demanding vocal fireworks might find the two leads underpowered. For me, the experience was as moving as I’ve heard. Vienna State Opera orchestra (and Chorus) under Mikko Franck’s conducting, played Puccini’s popular but subtle masterpiece with fresh ardour. And Zeffirelli’s stages, like Hollywood film sets, are to marvel. P.R. 26.03.2014
Photos: Maija Kovalevska (Mimi); Featured image Jongmine Park (Colline), Adrian Eroed (Marcello), Alessio Arduini (Schaumard)
(c) Wiener Staatsoper/ Michel Poehn
Reference to Oliver Lang Puccini und die Boheme (Wiener Staatsoper programme notes)

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