I am in the middle of a very exciting run of La bohème. There are several reasons why this run is so exciting. First of all, the production and staging have been very well done and have been very well received so far. For me personally, it is my first time reprising a role that I have previously performed. The character of Musetta, with all of her fiery narcissism could never be boring, and ultimately she reveals her good heart. The first time I performed as Musetta was in Italy, and every strain of Puccini’s melodic score takes me back to some memory of eating pizza in a small hilltop village. I also remember when the elderly gentleman who was hosting us in his upstairs apartment saw me on the staircase of his home after our opening night. “Musetta!” he yelled and stretched out his arms to hug me. We’d probably had only one or two conversations in my poor Italian up until this point, but it was clear that he knew me as Musetta, and I thought that was just fine. This time around preparing the role, however, the stress of it diminished considerably. Musically, it is like coming back to visit an old friend.
There was a time in my undergrad studies when I thought Puccini was rather low-brow. The libretti weren’t heady enough or filled with enough psycho-Freudian interpretations for my taste at the time, and those very melodic strains struck me as indulgently pandering to the masses. It wasn’t until my semester in Rome, when I attended a lecture by the famous Italian tenor’s son, Tito Scipa Jr. that I started to change my tune.
He analyzed this one musical gesture in Tosca. Puccini writes the strains of a church bell just before the music shifts and Floria Tosca receives the news that her lover is sentenced to death. The church bells resume in the orchestra after that musical passage, indicating that nothing has changed outside, contrasted with everything that has changed for Tosca. It is this rather simple, but still very specific and compelling musical language that makes Puccini great. He does not usually grapple with the cosmos, but seeks to find, in musical terms, heightened emotional moments reflected from real life. At this past Sunday’s lecture before the opera, we learned that Puccini purposely did not leave space for people to applaud after many arias, because he wanted the realism of the momentum of character interactions not to be interrupted or lost by the audience’s reactions, (which in Italy are very enthusiastic and expressive).
I further fell in love with La bohème specifically, after a masterclass in grad school featuring “Donde lieta”, Mimi’s third act aria. Puccini not only writes the aria in staggering phrases to emphasize the way Mimi is trying to stall the end of her relationship with Rodolfo, but also to reflect the staggering breaths of her tuberculosis. And the disease is written into the final act of the opera. There are bouts of euphoric singing in Act 4 that correlate directly to euphoric stages of the progression of TB.
My own snobbery seems laughable, as I am such a huge fan of this opera now. In my mind, it is not perfect, but Act 3 is about as wonderful as it gets. As she tells of her relationship struggles to her friend Marcello, Mimi’s music is beautiful and cathartic, and her stoic breakup with Rodolfo is brilliantly contrasted with Musetta and Marcello’s more aggressive parting of ways in the same scene. These are the moments that make it understandably one of the most popular operas of all time.
There is another reason this is an exciting production in which to be involved. Sadly, I wish that this particular part of the equation were not the case. The city of Boston took a blow this year, with the surprising recent closing of Opera Boston. The shock to the singing community cannot be exaggerated. Many of my friends lost a great deal of income and opportunity, not to mention the administrative staff and the arts community at large. Really, an opera about struggling artists could not be more palatable in this current climate. The record attendance we have had at La bohème, we hope is some sort of affirmation that opera can survive in Boston. If you have a chance, come see what audience members and reviewers are calling a charming and elegantly staged production of Boston Opera Collaborative’s classic La bohème.