In the first of a new series on our writers’ operatic passions, Sam Smith explains why Puccini’s 1896 opera never fails to entrance
Set in 1830s Paris, Puccini’s La bohème of 1896 focuses on six young adults and the love that four of them find with each other amidst the most impoverished of circumstances. It is an opera that never fails to entrance me because, in addition to having an extremely sad and moving ending, it is as balanced as it is undeniably beautiful.
Balance in this respect takes on multiple dimensions, so the fact the two hour piece is cinematographic in its length and proportions is just as important as the way in which the two main relationships are contrasted. Marcello and Musetta’s is undoubtedly stormy, but their frequent battles prove that their love actually has staying power. Rodolfo and Mimì, on the other hand, enjoy an apparently perfect love, but it is only fleeting as Mimì dies of consumption.
There would seem to be a contradiction between the ethereal music we hear, and the gritty and believably human setting. The aim of the contrast, however, is to reveal how a perfect love can rise above, and indeed out of, the most impoverished of circumstances. La bohème may contain highly moving or memorable arias such as ‘Che gelida manina’, ‘Quando me’n vo’’ and ‘Vecchia zimarra’, but just as important is the way in which the opera keeps the emotional colour wheel turning, so there are variations in mood throughout that help to sustain our interest. Almost every time we feel a moment is becoming too poignant to take any longer, something happens to lighten the mood, and vice versa.
As one of the most frequently performed operas in the world, it is hardly surprising that London has seen many productions over the years. Top of my list would be John Copley’s 1974 version for the Royal Opera, which proved so successful that it continued to be revived regularly until 2015. The secret to its success was to render the drama in a straight forward manner (it retained the original 1830s setting), while imbuing it with such a wealth of detail that magic abounded at every turn. The Act II scene in Café Momus was especially dynamic and if it held its own well into the twenty-first century, one wonders how much more revelatory it must have felt when it first appeared. Many productions have positioned the seven principals in this scene from left to right so as to maximise on the interactions between them, but this is one of the few that did so in such a way that it never occurred to us that fundamentally they were all just in a line.
The Copley production was replaced in 2017 by one by Richard Jones that, although not quite scaling the heights of its predecessor, has proved perfectly decent. The garret in which Acts I and IV take place is constructed so that it really draws the eye in. However, by restricting the area in which the principals have to perform, it encourages them to adopt large and stylised gestures that destroy the sense of realism that can be so vital to believing in, and hence feeling for, the scenario. Nevertheless, this problem affected the initial production most, and has largely been addressed in the two revivals since. The requisite sense of beauty is certainly provided in Act II as three shopping arcades are introduced, which create a magical glow with their strong aesthetic and use of perspective.
Jonathan Miller’s 2009 production for English National Opera updates the action to 1930s Depression soaked Paris. This emphasises the reality of the students’ hardship, with their situation being presented very much in three dimensions. We do not just see the garret, but its location within a larger building so that some actions take place onstage that would normally occur off it. For example, when the musician Schaunard leaves Rodolfo and Mimì in peace we see him crumbling in despair on the staircase outside, rather than simply exiting. The layout also means that Rodolfo and Mimì have to travel further at the close of Act I to ensure that the end of ‘O soave fanciulla’ is still delivered from offstage, the final notes drifting through to the audience as Puccini intended.
Ironically, the first ever performance of this production was cancelled because of snow, and the initial run was not particularly well received, with some feeling the 1930s setting made the piece feel too dull and grey (even though that was largely the point). It grew in stature with each revival, however, and is now acclaimed as something of a modern classic. In fact, it was replaced with a new version in 2015, but when that failed this one returned in 2018.
Benedict Andrews’ production that temporarily took its place sadly seemed to stand as a master class in how to undermine everything that normally makes La bohème so moving. It saw Rodolfo sing ‘Che gelida manina’ while injecting himself and then Mimì with drugs. Much as such enhancements may have explained why they fell for each other so quickly, it was hard to accept a love that was induced by drugs as being pure in any way. As such, the idea of a true love rising out of the most impoverished of circumstances was totally destroyed.
Elsewhere, too many things undermined the beauty of the opera, such as Rodolfo’s gift to Mimì of a bonnet being replaced by a garish pink wig. Similarly, the burning of Rodolfo’s manuscript in Act I and the men’s dancing in Act IV invited more spiked responses from the characters than usual. As we saw both instances threaten to turn nasty, it undermined the basic senses of comradeship and community that both the characters and we should feel.
Away from London’s two main opera houses Holland Park produced quite an unorthodox version in 2016. Generally productions set the opera either in its original time, or in a later period, but Stephen Barlow took the opposite approach by placing the action in Elizabethan England. 2016 was the four hundredth anniversary of the death of the Bard, and the idea of performing the piece as a Shakespearean drama at the Globe Theatre worked well. With poverty being as rife in sixteenth century England as nineteenth century France, the setting felt entirely appropriate, and if La bohème can be seen as quite cinematograhic, then so too was Shakespearean theatre. With the audience being inches from the action, players would have needed to have revealed the same detail in their expressions and gestures as if a camera had been on them.
As a general rule, achieving the balance between the human and divine is the secret to a good production, so that one feels a certain beauty, even if it is not always manifested on the surface. The approach of securing enough earthiness to ensure that the ethereal really bubbled up from beneath was exemplified by the production that launched OperaUpClose in 2009. Robin Norton-Hale’s version saw Acts I, III and IV performed in a pub theatre, and Act II in the pub itself so that anyone simply sitting in the establishment as it struck up would have witnessed it.
During the current lockdown, the best way to experience the opera may be online where many opera houses offering streamings are likely to be including it. In addition, and unsurprisingly given how readily it lends itself to the genre, there are several film versions. Robert Dornhelm’s 2009 creation stars Rollando Villazón as Rodolfo and Anna Netrebko as Mimì and really makes the most of the medium to create an all-encompassing scenario. For example, before we see Schaunard enter the garret in Act I, there are shots of him working his way through the streets. If elements such as this heighten the realism, the use of camera angles and close-ups make the piece feel even more melodramatic. By furthering both sides equally, however, the correct balance between conveying the earthy and divine is maintained. It is the secret to any good presentation of La bohème, and when it is achieved I always find the experience overwhelming, no matter how many times I may see the opera.