La Bohème: The Opera about “Nothing”

A friend complained that she profoundly disliked the opera La Bohème. Her criticism of Puccini’s hugely popular masterpiece is that the opera drags on, that it takes too long for Mimi to die, and that all of the operas she dislikes happen to be written by Puccini. These might sound like invalid criticisms, comments made by hurried, uncultured Americans who always want to “get somewhere” or something to happen. Lest one assume she is a complete cultural ignoramus, my friend is actually very knowledgeable about opera and the fine arts, and holds memberships to New York art museums though she lives in the Midwest. I was offended in jest, as I am currently learning the role of Musetta, which is as delightful as it is challenging, and will later learn the role of Mimi.

One could argue that we all have an artist we dislike in a particular genre. I doubt I will ever sit through an entire opera by Wagner, despite being an opera singer. But Wagner’s music is absolutely stunning in small doses. I find the overtures to Rienzi and Tannhäuser (one of my marooned-on-a-desert-island picks) and the Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin (tear-inducing when heard live by the Mariinsky Orchestra) to be heartbreakingly gorgeous. I have also joked that I refuse to see Puccini’s Turandot on moral grounds, that the opera is a sort of play-the-black-keys-on-the piano-and-it’s “Chinese” kind of Orientalism at its worst. But I do think it worthwhile to examine La Bohème in detail, to see if there is validity in my friend’s criticism of the opera.

La Bohème, essentially, is “an opera about nothing,” to borrow the analogy from the description of the hugely popular television show “Seinfeld.” The show focused on minutiae, where each episode was not about something grand or dramatic, but something small and silly, where the pleasure in watching came simply from being in the moment and enjoying the pleasure of watching, from funny lines or absurd situations or characters’ quirks. There is something to be said about this characteristic in all genres of artwork, where the realization of the work of art and its details, the way it reproduces reality or conjures the particular emotional feeling of the moment, is what makes it noteworthy. Impressionist paintings, for example, evoke a mood, as do 19th-century symphonic tone poems or a film like the stunning “Wings of Desire” (“Der Himmel Über Berlin”) by Wim Wenders, which is poetry on screen.

The main plotline to La Bohème is relatively simple—-a young dying woman, Mimì, falls in love with poor poet Rodolfo, who lives with his painter friend Marcello, and they are friends with other starving artists. Their relationship goes through ups and downs, as does the painter’s relationship with the coquettish Musetta. In the end, Mimì dies. All relatively straightforward, and not so much to stretch out into 4 acts. On this point, I would agree: La Bohème is too long; Act III could be condensed into Act IV. The opera could work in two acts, actually. The first could accelerate the meeting of Mimì and Rodolfo, then involve a set change into the café. At this peak of happiness, we could then see it all go downhill: Mimì seeks Marcello out to tell him of her unhappiness with Rodolfo, and then, after a set change, she dies. But even in condensing the opera into two acts, we are still ignoring a structural problem: too much of the action of here happens offstage. In this, the criticism that nothing happens in La Bohème may be well justified.

In Act I, the plot is set into action. We see Rodolfo writing and Marcello painting. We see their struggles as artists, we feel their suffering due to the lack of heat and food. And then most importantly, we see Mimì introduced onto the scene. We see her faint, we get to know her sickness. And then we see her falling in love with Rodolfo, and vice versa. In other words, Act I is active, because we are engaged with the events shown onstage.

Act II is less active, but we can forgive it because of one key reason—Musetta. She is one of opera’s greatest female characters, a free-spirited, vain, flirtatious, independent woman who will do as she pleases. She is one of the rare characters who does not suffer a tragic end, nor is she punished for enjoying her sexuality. Though we do not get much of the backstory of Marcello and Musetta’s, we get enough: theirs is an eternally on-off relationship that is generally taken lightly, in contrast to the deep, intimate, emotionally tortured relationship of Rodolfo and Mimì. We enjoy Musetta’s attention-seeking antics she uses to seduce Marcello, and her showcase aria, “Quando m’en vo” is arguably one of the most beautiful arias in all of opera. Act II is all about pleasure, pleasure in romance, pleasure in eating, pleasure in being surrounded by townsfolk. Though not super active, there is still visible action that drives the plot forward. Musetta is reunited with Marcello, and Rodolfo and Mimì are deeply in love forever.

Act III is where the opera becomes more passive. This fact is probably the most passive of all the 4 acts. Mimì has gone to seek Rodolfo at a tavern during winter. She reveals to Marcello what she has suffered from Rodolfo’s jealousy. Then, Rodolfo tells Marcello that he can’t bear it that Mimì is dying. The couple meets, and agrees to stay together until spring. While this is all fine and well, it is only because the music is so beautiful that the audience remains engaged. So much of the action has happened offstage–we have not gotten to see the downfall of their relationship, the arguments, the jealousies, Mimì’s slow decline. The contrast of a fight between Marcello and Musetta serves for comic relief: if Act II was a love moment, Act III is a hate moment in the roller coaster of their relationship. These two characters are not critical to the plot in the way Rodolfo and Mimì are. Time is stretched out in this act; it moves even more slowly than real-time.

Act IV is also rather passive until Mimì arrives on the scene. We have found out that she took up with a viscount after leaving Rodolfo, but has dragged herself, with the help of Musetta, to Rodolfo’s apartment to die. Again, too much has happened offstage that we want to know about–how did they survive the parting? What was Mimi’s relationship with this viscount? Did Rodolfo see any other women in the meantime? How has Mimì’s arrived at death’s door? Has she tried to save her life? Meanwhile, Musetta’s character arc shows her as less selfish than she was before. She has gone with Marcello to sell her earrings to buy Mimi a muff, and makes a sincere prayer to the Virgin Mary to save Mimi, an angel, considering herself unworthy of pardon. Her death scene is indeed touching, the group of friends surrounding her with their warmth and love. But again, one could argue that this act is stretched out longer than necessary, without much going on.

In sum, then, the problem with La Bohème is pacing and the portrayal of time. One must remember that the opera is based on a book, Scènes de la vie de bohème (scenes from a bohemian life), and therein lies the problem: the libretto is based on scenes. Any time a group of stories is woven together into a film or a longer work, such as an opera (and opera might be considered the equivalent of a novel), there is the danger of the longer work being fragmented. Longer works need structure and plot development. These two literary devices are the backbone or skeleton for a film or opera. Two people, Giacosa and Illica, also wrote the libretto and this may also be another source of the problem. Many films that seem unclear, messy, or fragmented have multiple writers, and it is rare when they can find unity in their vision.

This said, I still find La Bohème to be one of the most beautiful and engaging operas ever written. Puccini’s music carries the story even when it is weak, the language of the libretto is simply gorgeous and poetic, and the characters are as relevant today as they were over 100 years ago. They are rounded and complex, real and flawed. Proof of La Bohème’s popularity and relevance can be seen in Jonathan Larson’s 1996 musical, Rent. I personally happen to find the musical a somewhat vulgar copy of the opera, though I am always a fan of any modern work that draws on classics, such as the brilliant films that comprised 2005’s “ShakespeaRe-told”. There is no question that La Bohème will continue to be a classic for decades if not centuries to come.

The Italian Sensibility

This post is a natural complement to a post I wrote several months ago on the French sensibility.

When one thinks of Italian, probably the first thing that comes to mind is sound and the aural. Italian culture is a very auditory culture: it thrives on sound. The Italian language is very mellifluous; its pure vowels make it a singer’s delight, and the intonations up and down indicate the rise and fall of a person’s emotions. This is not an easy task for those who learn Italian as a foreign language, especially those who come from languages that are not intonation-heavy. The doubled consonants add pauses, creating a wonderful rhythm to the language that makes for interesting emphasis. And of course, naturally, with the Italian language goes the use of the hands: Italians are born with eurhythmy in their blood. The hands themselves speak an entire language of their own, frankly, though they served to highlight or underscore what’s being said.

Along with the Italians’ love of language goes the love of music, which is another aspect of sound. The Italians are naturally musical people. Their love of music is not something only formally cultivated; no, the average Italian can burst into song, or hum a well known melody with natural spontaneity from the soul that no amount of musical training could produce. This is, after all, the country that created opera! Think of opera but also of popular Neapolitan songs that have endured over centuries and have traveled all around the world. Mozart himself was probably the greatest “Italian” composer: his musical sensibility maintains all of the joy and grace of Italian culture, and his text setting of Da Ponte’s spectacular texts reveal his unbelievably nuanced understanding of the language. Don Giovanni is the ultimate Italian masterpiece. And the violin culture of Cremona, home to Stradivari and co., is yet another example of the Italians’ love for and understanding of music, through the making of complex string instruments.

As above, the Italians’ use of the hands gesticulating wildly speak leads to another facet of the culture—-the love of the physical, the kinesthetic, the body. The body is immortalized in countless Italian statues and sculptures over the millennia, admired openly by men on the street, and celebrated in fashion. Perhaps one of the greatest testaments to the body is Michelangelo’s David, the colossal sculpture of the epitome of male beauty. The Catholic faith as we know it (also anchored in Italy) addresses both the sins of the flesh as well as the holiness of the body: think the Eucharist ritual enacted at every mass. Think, also, of the trope of the whore in Italian film or literature—-her significance is larger than the mere fulfillment of male pleasure. One need only cite the brilliant Camille Paglia here, for her extensive writings on images of women in Italian art, literature, and history.

Needless to say, drama is a key element of Italian culture, be it on a personal level or an artistic one. Witness a shouting match at a Milanese supermarket when the cashier decides to go on break just when it is a customer’s turn to pay. Imagine “Ridi, pagliaccio” being sung as a child throws himself on the floor after being refused a cookie by his mamma. Marvel in the art form of opera, which includes such elements as blood and guts, lust, murder, death, passion, forbidden love, scandal, seduction, and intrigue, to name a few. The southern Italians have a reputation for being more passionate and dramatic than the reserved Northerners, but still, the latter are still more expressive than the average American or Northern European.

This passion and love for language is also reflected in the Italians’ love of debate, philosophy, and intellectualism. Since the Roman times, there runs a critical, analytic, even cerebral streak in many Italians. This is evident in those who feel tired of the cultural and political shenanigans of their country, who have a lot of commentary. Think of all the great Italian writers and philosophers: Eco, Gramsci, Dante, Lampedusa, et cetera. Perhaps this concrete, practical side of Italians was the inheritance from the Romans, for it was they in their practicality who drained the swamps, built the infrastructure, and created an empire. Chances are, the Italian intellectual is not so much of an abstract, spiritual thinker, but one who relates to his or her society and social circles.

This relating to people is also at the root of Italian society, for familial and personal ties take precedence over all else. The Anglo-Saxon sense of individualism and the quality we find here in the US or Britain or other Anglophone countries is not held to the highest ideal. Rather, one’s priorities lie with those in one’s circles; this probably makes Italy one of the most psychologically healthy countries in the developed world. One’s personal life matters: it is at the core of one’s being, it is one’s sustenance in a country where the government is unreliable and the political situation eternally unstable. In America, the personal is political; in Italy, the personal trumps the political—-no self-respecting Italian would completely forgo his or her personal life for the sake of a successful career, as is all too common here. This is not to say that there are not successful Italians or that there is not a professional work ethic in Italy. Bear in mind Italy’s financial prowess and economy, which can only have resulted from hard work. But an abstract sense of what is “professional” is replaced by a sense of meaningful relationships with others. And if one dares to succumb to clichés, the love for the familial ties is ever-present in the Italian man’s love for his mother.

Finally, one cannot discuss Italy without discussing the love of beauty. Something unpleasant or disagreeable is described as “brutto” or ugly. The purpose of everything is to serve as a work of art, be it one’s wardrobe, appearance, or living space. “Fare la bella figure”—-to cut a fine figure—-is a worthy goal the high and low aspire to. Art is what redeems the challenges of living in Italy, with its crumbling buildings, corruption, unstable government, and dubious infrastructure. Rome itself is a living museum, full of beautiful things to see and explore. Art historians for centuries have spent time in Italy, and in the olden days of the Grand Tour, Italy was a must for the wealthy and art-loving people. Textiles, silks, painted pottery, blown glass, luthiers—-these are but a few examples of craftsmanship present in usable objects, where form takes precedence over function.

This essay could continue endlessly to extol the virtues of Italian culture (and, perhaps also criticize its faults). But as a final note, perhaps Italy’s best contribution to the world is its FOOD!

Don Giovanni: The Ultimate Opera

Mozart’s masterpiece about the famed libertine of Seville still remains one of the most beloved operas even today. Certainly, one must give equal credit to the brilliant librettist Lorenzo da Ponte whose choice of language, pacing, and structure make the opera a seamless work that flows with nary a glitch. It is possible to put forth the idea that Don Giovanni was da Ponte’s way of publicly flogging himself or atoning for his lifetime of misdeeds and romantic transgressions, for da Ponte’s own life was as colorful and scandalous as, if not more so than, the title character’s. The opera is exciting and engrossing because it is simply over-the-top: blood, lust, vengeance, love, seduction, violence, murder, infidelity, passion, celebration, abundance, humor, class struggles, suspicion, betrayal, and even a ghost in statue form are all packed into roughly 3 1/2 hours. This is the very essence of opera; it is and must be something out of the ordinary, something unreal and larger-than-life. It helps us transcend the experience of our mundane daily lives—-paying the bills, cooking the pasta, making a logical case for something at the office. Don Giovanni is unmistakably Italian in its aesthetic and character. It is carnal, sensual, expressive, passionate, robust, beautiful, lyrical—-and Catholic. It does not ask why or try to make rationalizations in the Anglo-Saxon manner; it puts the viewer right into the heart of the story, entwined with each character’s motives and vengeant objectives, with a pervasive yet delicious sense of sin and immorality. We know from the beginning that what Don Giovanni is doing is absolutely wrong, but it is precisely the fact that he does not get caught until the very end that makes the story so enticing: we delight in his unabashed lack of repentance and consequences. The superlative, magnificent finale serves as our justification for watching, for if he were not caught and sent to hell, we would somehow not be satisfied deep within. Ultimately, If Americans do not appreciate or “get” Don Giovanni, it is because He Who Does Not Understand Italy Cannot Understand Don Giovanni.

Also interesting to explore about Don Giovanni is the question of interpretation, for the opera lends itself to a variety of nuances of characterization, stagings, etc. Fundamentally, of course, there must be the idea of Don Giovanni paying the price for all of his sins with women and murder, of being punished for his large living and excesses (the Salzburg Festival’s 2011 appalling production of the opera was an example of what not to do, the very perversion of the opera). One must also observe the careful ideas put forth by the remarkable and precise text, for da Ponte was a master of the Italian language (he was the first professor of Italian at Columbia University, having moved to New York from Europe!) But there are a number of choices that can be made. Is Donna Anna truly raped at the beginning? Was she indeed enamored of the nobleman? How much or little will Donna Anna be attracted to Don Ottavio, and would she truly choose him if he had not been her shoulder to cry on after her father’s murder? What are Donna Elvira’s motives for going after Don Giovanni—-simply his broken promise to marry her, her lack of other male prospects, or a pregnancy? How old is she? Is she a relatively young woman who is furious at herself for having lost her virginity to Don Giovanni? Or is she older, aware that time is running out for her to make a suitable marriage? How envious a sidekick is Leporello of his master’s sexual conquests? Is Zerlina a natural flirt, or is she simply caving into the momentary seductions of the Don who is exercising his droit de seigneur? What setting other than the conventional plaza and balconies in Seville can also work? New Orleans (as was used by the University of Michigan School of Music’s recent production)? Italy? Venice (as in the visually beautiful Joseph Losey film)? Or a minimalist staging, for the characterizations and music are so strong that they can carry the opera by themselves? Is the entire opera set in the last day of Don Giovanni’s life, or is it a culmination of the events presented in the opera that leads him to burn in hell at the end?

Thus it is obvious that the opera also requires a brilliant director who can shape a production that emphasizes the necessary elements of the story and yet conveys something unique of its own. And each of the performers must be masters not only of technique (Mozart is notoriously difficult to sing, for it is so pure and reveals the naked voice), but also of interpretation, creating three-dimensional characters so as not to reduce the opera to a mere Commedia dell’Arte. This is not to say that opera does not draw upon certain tropes from that tradition or Southern European literature. The Zerlina character of the earthily sensual, shrewd peasant or lower-class woman has been seen from La Serva Padrona all the way to Sophia Loren films. But a good opera singer must make the audience feel that his or her character is a flesh and blood human being who has a raison d’être similar to that of individuals through time. Mozart has carefully delineated each character through his choice of music and key signatures (think of the rapidly shifting keys to represent Donna Elvira’s moods in “Mi Tradi’ quell’alma ingrata”). The integration between the composer and librettist in this opera is simply stunning.

Don Giovanni has already been popular for centuries, and undoubtedly will be popular for many more. Mozart and da Ponte were certainly a match made in heaven—-not hell!