Puccini's La Boheme, a perennially audience-pleasing work, was presented by the Minnesota Opera Company in St. Paul on May 20, 2017. This is a new production with impressive sets, particularly for the crowd scenes in Act Two and the nocturne in the third Act. The singers performed well, although they were sometimes overwhelmed by the orchestra -- none of the actors had the kind of brassy attack necessary to cut through the dense swaths of orchestral commentary with which the score is replete. Nicole Cabell was an attractive if slightly too understated Mimi. Mary Evelyn Hangley as Musetta also seemed a bit too timorous for her extroverted role and was, I thought, screechy in her top register. On the other hand, Musetta is flamboyant conceived and the irregularities in timbre in her high notes didn't necessarily seem to me to be out of character. The opera's first and last acts take place in a confined garrett, a sort of manger mounted on a pedestal among shadowy flats representing facades in the city of Paris. The second act opens onto the street where the Café Momus provides a backdrop to large choral forces playing pedestrians, street vendors, and, ultimately, a military band. This scene was well-managed with a kind of Dickensian grandeur. The third act, occurring at one of the barricades in the City, was also Dickensian -- a heap of rubbish occupied one side of the stage between towering painted flats representing tenement buildings. The checkpoint itself was a kind of cast-iron fence with cage-like booth and gate. A flicker of snow fell from high above the topless flats depicting adjacent buildings and some scruffy snow was also drifted against the alley-like space between the structures lining the city streets. The third act is the highlight of the opera and, in my estimation, the set for this scene, a nocturne ending at dawn, was less poetic than merely utilitarian -- I wanted the set for this part of the opera to be a little more romantic, more lyrical, I suppose, than strictly functional. I didn't notice any lighting effects of any significance -- in the death scene in Act Four, the garret's skylight glows with white light. There was no attempt to represent the onset of dawn in the third scene. The sets and staging were a little lazy, not noteworthy in any way, but functional enough. There were no major blunders in costuming or mise-en-scene. Rodolfo showed his love for Mimi by grinning at her stupidly -- this was a little disconcerting and I wish the hero had been a little more circumspect and winsome in showing his affection.
I have seen La Boheme five or six times and, for some reason, always forget the libretto's structure. The opera is designed to contrast the profane love between the courtesan Musetta and the starving artist, Marcello, with the more ethereal passion of Mimi and Rodolpho. This is not clear at the outset since Musetta does not appear until Act II. The opera's two middle acts (II and III) insist on the comparison and, indeed, the show's most beautiful music are the parallel duets between lovers in Act III at the Barrier d'Enfer. Musetta and Marcello are always jealously quarreling, breaking up and, then, reuniting. Marcello sings that "our love is based on music and laughter", neglecting to mention the powerful currents of rage and jealously that also characterize their relationship. Musetta is frivolous and carnal. She declares that "because (she) is surrounded by desire, (she) is joyful." By contrast, Mimi is a specter, a white ghost who lives in a "little white room" where she makes white cloth flowers that have no odor. Her love is inflected with death. Mimi is associated with winter and, although she sings about the change in the seasons, it is clear that her existence is stark, cold, minimalist. This is easily overlooked by audiences -- Mimi's arias are, sometimes, punctuated by a throbbing, brazen chord decorated with a filigree of bird-song. (This chord with the bird-song will re-occur in Puccini's Madame Butterfly.) We are not aware of the significance of this blazing burst of sound until the last ten bars in the opera's score -- at that point, the chord is identified with death and, indeed, accompanies Mimi's demise. Love is about desire and the flesh in the case of Marcello and Musetta; love signifies death in the case of the white maiden with the white odorless cloth flowers. At the Barrier d'Enfer, Mimi sings: "To be alone in Winter is like dying."
Puccini likes liminal scenes, moments that are on the threshold between overt displays of love or death. The classic example is the scene at dawn in his last opera Turandot. The most gorgeous music in La Boheme is the transitional scene at the Barrier d'Enfer, the "gates of Hell". In this scene, sleepy guards admit milk maids to the slumbering city -- it is before dawn -- and Mimi, who has fled Rodolfo for a sketchy viscount, encounters Rodolfo again and expresses her undying love for him; Musetta and Marcello also sing together, Marcello alternately attracted and repulsed by Musetta's fickleness. The two sets of lovers sing together, making vows that we know will be broken, possibly even before the end of the day. Originally, there was another act intervening between Mimi's death -- her demise now comes very quickly on the heels of Act 3. In the omitted act, Mimi reverted to her opportunistic relationship with the viscount -- this despite her Act 3 promise to return and live alone in "(her) little white room." Mimi's infidelity is referenced briefly in the death scene in Act 4, a puzzling allusion embedded in the opera as it now exists but otherwise unmotivated. It is interesting to consider the provisional ad hoc or improvised nature of Italian opera in the late 19th century. La Boheme is one of the greatest, and most beloved works, of the operatic repertoire and, yet, its libretto only scarcely makes sense -- and contains what we would now call "continuity errors" based upon the suppression of one of its acts. We regard La Boheme as high art, but to the first audiences at the Teatro Regio in Turin, the show was just a popular amusement, a crowd-pleasing bagatelle.