Puccini's "La Bohème" for Beginners

Puccini's "La Bohème" for Beginners

Better to have loved and lost...

Before You attend

Maybe La bohème is your first opera, or perhaps you’re eyeballing this because you’re contemplating attending your first opera. It could be that you’ve gone to a few operas, but you feel intimidated by people who seem to know a lot more than you do. Whatever the case is, welcome. You probably don’t know that the opera world loves beginners like you – and it’s exciting to watch you discover that opera isn’t some arcane or elitist activity, but a vibrant, dynamic form of accessible entertainment. It’s probably the art form that’s the most comprehensive: there’s sublime music, a live orchestra, singing, acting, dance, stage and lighting design, costume and millinery, and story. If the opera is sung in another language, you have your own translation at your fingertips on your personal screen in front of you. Hmmm…but isn’t it budget-breaking to go to the opera? If you’re a resident of New Mexico, you get a 40% discount off your first ticket! And anyone with a ticket gets free entry to an eye-opening pre-opera talk both two hours and one hour before each performance.

Opera productions range from comedic to serious, and from romantic to tragic. Sometimes, as in the case of this version of La bohème, it’s a combination of all of the above. If this unusual Santa Fe Opera production belonged to a film genre, it would be a rom-com with a three-handkerchief ending. Director Mary Birnbaum gives the famed 1896 opera by composer Giacomo Puccini (with libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa) a decidedly contempo spin. Be prepared for rollerblading, male bonding, commitment phobia, sisterhood, working for The Man, relationship blues, starving artists, love at first sight, and sets that are changed, as if by magic, in front of your eyes.

The Story

The story? Act I takes place on Christmas Eve in an attic apartment in Paris that’s shared by four impecunious male artists. It’s a cold night, and Rodolfo (a poet) and Marcello (a painter) stay close to the rapidly dwindling fire, trying to stay warm. Things are so bad financially that Rodolfo burns his latest opus, a play, to keep the fire going. It’s a happy reprieve when the other two roomies come home. Colline (a philosopher) and Schaunard (a musician) are full of good cheer. Schaunard has obviously had at least one good day, and he delights his friends with some provisions, more firewood, and vino. The guys are poor in terms of money but rich in imagination. They clown around in Frat Pack fashion; think Owen Wilson and Jack Black with great voices.

Act I of La boheme at The Santa Fe Opera Soloman Howard (Colline), Zachary Nelson (Marcello), Dale Travis (Benoit), Will Liverman (Schaunard), supernumerary, and Mario Chang (Rodolfo). Photo by Ken Howard.
Act I of La boheme at The Santa Fe Opera Vanessa Vasquez (Mimì) and Mario Chang (Rodolfo). Photo by Ken Howard.

Drama requires tension, so the landlord comes in asking for the overdue rent. The guys do some clever fast-talking and send the befuddled landlord out empty-handed. In a celebratory mood, they go out to the Café Momus, but Rodolfo stays behind to write. Enter Mimì, a neighbor who embroiders linen and silk and makes artificial roses; she comes to have her candle lit. But no sooner does she enter the apartment than she and Rodolfo fall crazy in love at first sight, and then she faints. This is a hint of what is to come, but more about that later. When Mimì revives, the duo profess their undying mutual love and leave for the Café Momus to join Rodolfo's friends.

You can probably relate to the first act if you are an artist trying to make a living in Santa Fe or anyone struggling to pay the rent. And because Santa Fe is a magnet for art lovers and lovers in general, whether you live here or are visiting you will be charmed by the roommates’ discussions about creativity, the arts, love, and what men (at least these four men) really want.

In Act II, Mimì meets the boys at Café Momus, and Marcello's ex shows up: she's a flamboyant, flirtatious free spirit named Musetta. She dumps the sugar daddy she’s with and takes off with Marcello.

Act I of La boheme at The Santa Fe Opera Mario Chang (Rodolfo) and Vanessa Vasquez (Mimì). Photo by Ken Howard.
Act II of La boheme at The Santa Fe opera Gabriella Reyes (Musetta) and The Santa Fe Opera Chorus. Photo by Ken Howard.

During the intermission, as people swirl their wine or sip their sparkling water, they exchange opinions about this production of La bohème. Some think the comedic spin for what is generally considered a tragic story is exactly what is needed for our heavy times. Others find that the comedy – like Musetta skating and twirling a baton as though she’s a majorette – undercuts the gorgeous arias and the heartbreaking story. When you mingle with friends and audience members, it’s a perfect time to express what you think and feel. All opinions matter. You might talk about some of the literary themes of the opera —like what is real and what is an illusion. What’s art and what’s artifice? And what is love? Is suffering inherent in relationships?

In Act III, Musetta and Marcello are living together, and things seem to be going well, but of course this is just temporary. For Mimì, on the other hand, things are not going well at all. Rodolfo has left her in a fit of jealousy about her flirting, but it’s a baseless accusation. She asks Marcello for help and although he is certainly no expert on relationships, he offers advice and says she and Rodolfo should part ways. Soon after Rodolfo arrives, and Mimì hides as he tells Marcello what is really going on with him. His jealousy is a pretext. In fact, he fears that Mimì is dying of consumption, and he’s wracked with guilt because all he can offer her is his room in a garret with no heat. Love cannot bring her health. He hopes that if he drives her away she’ll find someone rich to take care of her as she nears her end. He sees Mimì, and realizes he has been overheard. No longer hiding his real feelings, he and Mimì make peace. Musetta and Marcello, on the other hand, are on a rocky road. She is really flirtatious, and he fumes about it. Love is never easy, is it?

Act III of La boheme at The Santa Fe Opera Vanessa Vasquez (Mimì) and Zachary Nelson (Marcello). Photo by Ken Howard.
Act III of La boheme at The Santa Fe Opera Mario Chang (Rodolfo) and Vanessa Vasquez (Mimì). Photo by Ken Howard.

In Act IV, Rodolfo and Marcello are heartbroken in their garret. They are haunted by the loves of their lives that are now history. Mimì and Musetta have each gone off with men who have money. As they eat bread and a herring, they pretend that they, too, are rich men. They clown around, doing a minuet and a fandango, as though they are at a ball. In the middle of their buffoonery, Musetta arrives with a grievously ill Mimì, who she found in the street. All of the friends unite around Mimì and Rodolfo.  Colline sings a rich, brilliant farewell to his coat as he goes to sell it to help Mimì. Musetta, in sisterhood and solidarity with Mimì, pawns her jewelry. The friends go to get a doctor, medicine, anything that can prolong Mimì’s life. Rodolfo and Mimì are left alone, and Rodolfo, the poet and dreamer, cannot face the reality that Mimì is in her final hour. Mimì claims she is all right now. With Rodolfo’s love, she can die in peace. When the friends return and Mimì has stopped breathing and grows cold, he asks them, “Is it serious?” No more illusion. No more clowning. In a moment of pain and realization, Rodolfo grows up. Death is as real as it gets.

Act IV of La boheme at The Santa Fe Opera Zachary Nelson (Marcello), Mario Chang (Rodolfo), Soloman Howard (Colline) and Will Liverman (Schaunard) Photo by Ken Howard.
Act IV of La boheme at The Santa Fe Opera Zachary Nelson (Marcello), Mario Chang (Rodolfo), Gabriella Reyes (Musetta), Soloman Howard (Colline), Will Liverman (Schaunard) and Vanessa Vasquez (Mimì). Photo by Ken Howard.

As you walk to your car, under the stars, you’ll carry with you an appreciation for the beauty of the human voice – soprano, tenor, baritone, and bass. You’ll remember the masterful conducting of the orchestra, the brilliance of the set that shrinks Paris down to stage size, and the flexible acting of the singers who pull off the transition between comedy and drama. And you’ll probably be thinking about which opera you want to see next.

—Judith Fein

Judith Fein is an award-winning author, international travel journalist specializing in culture, reviewer, director, and opera librettist. You can learn more about her and her adventures at www.GlobalAdventure.us