Opera has always impressed me with the intense emotion that a human voice can emit. La Bohème has received international acclaim for its ability to create an intimate experience for the audience. Recalling my first experience with a Giacomo Puccini production in a DVD version of Turandot, I had high expectations for La Bohème. Obviously the DVD showcased the best performance so it was no surprise that my impression of Puccini’s work was based on a grandiose illustration of dramatic tension and allure.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not comparing Turandot to La Bohème. After all, they were works produced in different stages of Puccini’s life and posses significantly different styles. If J.K. Rowling can write Harry Potter and The Casual Vacancy in one lifetime, then the coexistence of La Bohème and Turandot is surely justified.
The story is based on events that occurred in Henri Murger’s eighteenth century publication—Scènes de la vie de bohème. Narrowing the content down to four characters to represent the lives of bohemians in the Latin quarter of Paris. Mimi (Elini Calenos) is a feeble, virginal protagonist and Musetta (Emily Birsan) plays a flirtatious singer. The story revolves around Mimi and Rodolfo’s (Mackenzie Whitney) romance and Musetta and Marcello’s (Dan Kempson) courtship.
The story itself is hilarious, indicating that all you need to do is to loose your keys and your candle’s flame to find true love. Mimi and Rodolfo fall in love on a cold winter night when they conveniently loose both of these necessary elements. As a result, they indulge in a simple romance. The revelation that Mimi is severely ill, causes Rodolfo to leave her, fearing that his impoverished artist lifestyle would drag her to her deathbed. Fate is always one step ahead though so even when Mimi is off with a wealthy gentleman, she is still too fragile for the cold. Inevitably, she is forced to everlasting slumber.
The problem with La Bohème is that there is nothing particularly dramatic when it comes to the 21st century audience. If you have had your fair share of the Kardashian-Jenner Empire or Donald Trump performances in the recent Republican presidential debates, this will pale in comparison. What really draws people to opera is the music itself. There is no doubt that Puccini pulls a Mendelssohn and Schuman with his purely entertaining and gritless plotline, yet somehow, we loose that sense of bewilderment in the production as a whole. The singing is adequate, and the production is acceptable. Calenos makes a perfect Mimi and Birsan a perfectly sultry Musetta yet the production did not live up to the hype I usually anticipate from opera. It was, nevertheless a decent tribute to Puccini’s lovable piece of ridicule and romance.
There is something gorgeously tragic about love that is forced apart by reality. There’s also something deliciously tormenting about love that is continuously tested by temptation. If you are searching for a nostalgic lullaby to enjoy, going to the Madison Opera at the Overture Center is always a good place to start.