La Bohème

Last Wednesday I went to the Encore showing of the New York Metropolitan Opera’s MetroHD movie-theatre production of La Bohème.  And I was disappointed.

What is my favorite opera?  I can’t answer that question.  It depends on my mood and what operas I’ve seen recently.  But to the related question, “What opera affects me the most emotionally?”, the answer is La BohèmeOver the past 7 years I had seen at least five different productions – several of them more than once.  And every time I knew going in that when Rodolfo sang his final anguished, “Mimi”, the tears would be rolling down my cheeks.  But Wednesday night there was only a small lump in my throat and a mere trace of moisture in my eyes.

Why?  Why did this production sung by international stars, accompanied by a world-class orchestra, with unbelievable sets, with skillful camera work showing close ups of the very photogenic Mimi and the very believable Rodolfo, leave me cold?

The contrast with the two most recent performances I had seen could hardly have been greater.  Last August I attended a production by the brand new Fremont Opera.  A semi-staged version by a small company on a small stage.  As the final curtain came down I was limp.

Four years ago the music students at Simpson College in Iowa showed off their talents by presenting a collection of scenes from various operas.  No admission – they were happy to have an audience.  No scenery – except for a bed and a chair the stage was bare.  No orchestra, only a piano.  They only performed the final scene so there was no build up getting to know the characters through the first 3 acts.  In fact the preceding scene had been by a different cast from a totally different opera – I don’t even remember what.  And at the end I was totally wiped out.

Ingredient by ingredient, they can hardly be compared:

  • Student performers vs international stars
  • Piano vs world-class orchestra
  • Minimal costumes vs elaborate period-perfect costumes
  • No scenery vs fantastic scenery
  • Bare stage vs authentically furnished garret

But, like two different non-Euclidean geometries, in one production the whole was much greater than the sum of its parts – and in the other, it was much less.

But why this difference?  Why does a small college in Iowa put things together better than one of the greatest opera companies in the world?

That‘s probably the wrong question to start with.  Regardless of particulars, how can any performance of this opera generate such a strong emotional reaction?  Part of the answer, of course, is Puccini’s beautiful music.  The rest, I believe is the simplicity and relevance of the story.  The plot is banal – almost non-existent.  A man and a woman meet and experience love and loss.  What could be simpler?  I could be that man; you could be that woman.  What could be more relevant?

Puccini’s genius is that he can find exactly the right music to tell this simple story.  I’m no musician.  If part of the music were inappropriate, I might be able to pinpoint that fact, but I would have no idea how to fix it.  But here there is nothing to fix.  Every note, every harmony, every volume, every interval is perfect.

O. K., the opera is perfect.  Then why did Wednesday’s performance leave me dry-eyed while the tears flowed freely at the student performance and the semi-staged performance (and at Pocket Opera and West Bay Opera performances in 2002)?  Let me review the action as I remember it, from when Mimi is carried into the garret room of the 4 bohemians.  Everyone  except Rodolfo and Mimi knows that she will die within the hour.  Tension starts to build as they each try to do something for Mimi: sell their jewelry, call a doctor, pawn an overcoat, etc.  The others go off on their errands, leaving the lovers to sing their beautiful duet about how she will soon get better.  The others return with their gifts.  Mimi, on the bed at one side of the stage, appears to drift into quiet sleep; Rodolfo wanders to the opposite side of the stage; the others are somewhere in between.

Mimi’s arm drops limply from the edge of the bed.  We, the audience are the first to know that she has drawn her last breath.  Tension builds as the others notice that she is dead.  Knowledge of this fact appears to move inexorably, almost palpably, across the room.  Only Rodolfo, turned away from the others is ignorant.  He senses a change in the atmosphere.  He turns and looks at them one by one as the knowledge seeps into his consciousness.  He looks at Mimi, cries her name, and hurls himself at her.  Final chords.  Final curtain.  [God, even as I sit alone in my office and write these words, I have to take off my glasses and reach for the Kleenex].

Now it’s easy to see where the Met went wrong.  They were a victim of their own technical abilities.  They were so busy showing closeups of each person as he or she first became aware of Mimi’s death, that we missed the overall effect.  The power of the scene is the build up of tension as we wait for Rudolfo to find out and to react.  He is the focus of the scene.  He is the one who has lost his lover; the others have merely lost a lovely friend.  To be sure, when I am watching a stage performance, part of me is noticing which person is just now discovering Mimi’s death.  But Rudolfo is the one I identify with.  I am watching the whole stage as the news moves across the room, waiting for the release of his final cry and action.  I’m not interested in a close up of how Musetta or Colline express their grief.

But at the Shoreline Cinema the camera person wouldn’t let me do that.  For a few moments there, Rudolfo was forgotten.  .  .  .  And I felt cheated out of my tears.

But for 3½  acts it was a wonderful performance.

Philip Hodge
Palo Alto, May 2008

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