Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Puccini's Bohemians: A Weekend in Paris

This weekend, the stage at The Forum becomes a "time-portal" that will take you back to the Paris of young artists struggling to survive, living in garrets and falling in (and out) of love – with the help of the Harrisburg Symphony, several vocal soloists and a few choirs as Stuart Malina conducts one of the most popular operas in the world, Puccini's La Boheme.

In this "concert performance" (without complete staging, sets or costumes but with English supertitles translating the Italian), you'll meet

Mimì (sung by soprano Inna Dukach), a young seamstress who meets and falls in love with

Rodolfo (sung by tenor Dinyar Vania), a young poet who shares the garret with his friend

Marcello (sung by baritone Grant Youngblood), a painter who has an on-again/(mostly)off-again relationship with the singer

Musetta (sung by soprano Jane Redding), a high energy bombshell who sings how, whenever she walks down the street, all the men turn and stare at her (the original "Girl from Ipanema").

The cast of characters also includes two more bohemians (poor starving artists, beatniks, hippies of another age), good friends of Rodolfo and Marcello – Schaunard (sung by a baritone), a musician and Colline (sung by a bass) who calls himself a philosopher.

There are "bit parts" for the old landlord, Benoit, and Musetta's latest sugar-daddy, Alcindoro (both sung by the same bass).

There's a huge part for a large chorus in Act II – with the Susquehanna Chorale (prepared by Linda Tedford) and the Harrisburg Singers (prepared by Susan Beckley) – as crowds of revelers circulating through Montmarte on Christmas Eve, including a band of children, a toy-seller and a frustrated child who wants a toy, just short of a tantrum.

(You can read the Metropolitan Opera's plot synopsis here.)

So, join us for a slice of the artistic life, courtesy of Puccini's special group of Friends – Saturday evening at 8pm and Sunday afternoon at 3pm at The Forum in downtown Harrisburg.

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If you attended the performance of Puccini's Tosca a couple seasons ago – including Dinyar Vania as Cavardossi and Grant Youngblood as Scarpia – you might recall Stuart telling the story how his real favorite opera is Boheme, having grown up with it and, when he was in high school, coming home and playing the recording – especially the 3rd Act – over and over and over... Well, now he gets a chance to share his love for this music with the Harrisburg audience.

Boheme has remained one of the most popular operas – and sources for spin-offs like Rent – for a very simple reason. It has what many people look for in a work of art – and much of that appeal, I think, comes from its sincerity, not just great tunes and lush harmonies which are (as they say today in techno-speak) the "delivery system" for the music's content. The story is appealing and in a way combines elements of something you could enjoy from an episode of "Friends" to the heart-break of a movie like... well, pick a 'weepie' of your choice (I was thinking "Love Story"). And it's all "delivered" in a well-written, finely hewn musical package that, even if you're a musical snob, has to be admired for its craft. It is an effective work of theater, in the abstract sense, moving from scene to scene with dramatic logic), the music helps bring the characters to life (not just give them pretty things to sing), and the orchestral writing shows Puccini's skill not just as a composer but also as a musical technician.

It's also a wonderful "first opera" for anyone who'd feel reluctant to sit through a couple hours of people singing in a foreign language.

Though not the first opera I saw or heard, it was the first opera I saw that turned me on to the idea of opera – and that, thanks to my high school music teacher, Irene Christman, who played through the recording on the installment plan during several consecutive classes with a couple of vocal scores for us to follow along, then took us to Harrisburg's State Theater to see a film presentation of the opera. I can't figure out which one it was – I distinctly remember Mirella Freni (because I knew who she was) but the tenor was unknown to me or my teacher. I remember it being Luciano Pavarotti but that would've meant the 1969 recording and I graduated from high school in 1967, so...

Regardless, it will always stay with me as one of the most important musical experiences in my life.

(The illustration - left - is Mimi's costume from the original 1893 premiere production.)

Here's a sequence of video and audio clips from YouTube with the final scene from the first act: it begins with Rodolfo introducing himself to his newly discovered neighbor: "Who am I?" he sings, "I am a poet." She replies, in her aria, she's a seamstress who calls herself Mimì. Then, in a duet that closes the act, they have now fallen completely in love with each other.

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Rodolfo's Aria "Che gelida manina" sung by Luciano Pavarotti in his debut in 1961 (he was 25, then)

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Mimi's Aria "Mi chiamano Mimi" sung by Mirella Freni in a 1971 staging

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"O soave fanciulla" (Duet, End Act I) with Pavarotti & Freni (1969)

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By the time we get to that final scene, when Mimi returns to Rodolfo's garret and dies, I usually have a lump in my throat – sometimes, even from hearing just a bit of that music. While I was looking around YouTube for these clips, I found this one, and in a moment the tears began to well up – and that's just from hearing this excerpt. Now, granted, I know what's coming and I almost always have this reaction, so perhaps it is "conditioning" and even though I'm a pretty analytical kind of guy not prone to showing my emotions, it rarely fails to move me. There was even a performance one time – a touring company that came to Rochester – in which the Mimi was so bad, I told a friend after Act I, when I was ready to walk out, "she deserved to die" in the final act. However, I stayed and she improved through the rest of the opera. By the end, everything was so convincing, I was still in tears.

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The final moments of La Boheme, with Freni & Pavarotti, 1990:

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This is truly an ensemble opera that is helped by great singers but in the end it is Puccini's incredible touch with the music he gives these singers to create their characters, to underscore their emotions and define the dramatic (or comic) situations, that you realize Puccini knows how to push the right buttons.

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There was originally another act intended for the opera, between the hilarity of the 2nd Act's Christmas Eve celebrations in the Latin Quarter outside the Cafe Momus and the 3rd Act's stark emotions of broken hearts on a cold, snowy morning. While it might explain the transition between the first two acts' joi de vivre and the tragedy of the last two acts, it was probably wise of Puccini to leave it on the cutting room floor:

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Musetta's house – her 'protector' (presumably still Alcindoro, who was left footing the bill in Act II, unless she broke up with Marcello for somebody else, in between) has dropped her, refusing to pay any more rent on the place, so the furniture is being carried outside to be auctioned off in the morning. Regardless, the four young artists come by and decide they should have a party, sparing no expense for wine and having an orchestra. Musetta gives Mimi one of her beautiful gowns and introduces her to a Viscount and they dance a quadrille in the garden, arousing Rodolfo's jealousy. As dawn approaches, the furniture dealers arrive to cart everything off for the auction.
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Dramatically, the problem would be too much party music back-to-back, just following the rowdy scene outside the Cafe Momus. It explains the bitterness in the next act's bitter confrontations between Rodolfo and Mimi as well as Marcello and Musetta, as well as the reference Rodolfo makes at the start of Act IV – harking back to the very opening of the opera, two artists unable to create – to the Viscount. It also throws a slightly different light on the "entertainment" that follows, when the other bohemians return, Schaunard celebrating a sudden windfall by sharing food and drink with his friends during which they throw a dance (just among themselves) including a very sarcastic take-off of a quadrille which is suddenly interrupted by something more full-blooded, a fandango!

So this "missing act" would either have made these elements redundant or, quite possibly, they were incorporated into the last act instead. Either way, it shows Puccini's hand at theatricality: the sudden intrusion of Musetta with the seriously ill Mimi at the end of the dance sequence in Act IV is one of the most shocking transitions from comedy to tragedy in the turn of a page.

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Full disclosure - two characters in my novel, The Lost Chord (a spoof of Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol) are named after arias from La Boheme -- there's a secret agent named Kaye Gelida Manina and a police officer who works on the Vice Squad named Wanda Menvaux...

- Dick Strawser