Pre-performance Talk

Given in the National Concert Hall Dublin at Lyric Opera’s production of La Bohème on 23, 24, 26 February 2019

George Fleeton

The Composer

LA BOHÈME, Puccini’s fourth opera, was 123 years old this month.

THIS introduction, followed by our production, should help us to focus on two most intriguing and pertinent questions: why are Puccini’s best-known works so different from what had preceded them in 19th century Italian opera? And why has their continued popularity been so robust and unchallenged in the decades since his death 95 years ago?

IT has been said that Puccini’s music sounds better than it is, and that his style of composition evolved very little during the forty years, from 1884, that it took him to write twelve operas.

HARSHER critics have frequently accused him of decadence, misogyny and superficial showmanship, adding that there is little by way of intellectual engagement in any of his operas.

BUT opera is a blood sport; tragic narratives stalk the stage; so it is not too difficult to counter-argue by emphasising Puccini’s passion for high octane drama, his natural feel for what works in the theatre, his consistent facility for writing memorable melodies, and his genius for manipulating our emotional responses to his music, which for so many of us is part and parcel of the soundtrack of our lives.

THAT surely is a winning formula, the effective means to achieve his ends, which made him the most successful and popular opera composer of his generation up to the mid-1920s and ever since.

PUCCINI’S work plays in the same premier league as Mozart, Wagner and Verdi, and his Bohème, Tosca and Butterfly can hold their own against anything written by such distinguished forebears; though what in a strange way separates him from those who went before was that he did not progress steadily and confidently forward through his life as a composer getting better and better with each opera, as they had done.

YET as a composer of music for the dramatic stage, as an educated man who travelled widely, who went frequently to the theatre and to the silent cinema, he has always been box office gold.

HE alone gave four hundred years of Italian opera its final great burst of pride, for that style and tradition of music died when Puccini died in 1924.

The Opera

LA BOHÈME offers us both ecstasy in love and pathos in death – a version of liebestod, not in the more profound sense of Wagner or some Verdi, but in the simplicity and brevity of small things happening before us on stage and reflected back to us by the unfolding melodrama – emotions which we recognise and which are perfectly painted, choreographed and sculpted in Puccini’s music.

THE opera is set in bohemian Paris and the principal characters live light years away from those classical/aristocratic and mythical/historical creatures which peopled the operas of Puccini’s predecessors.

OUR heroine Mimì – sung by Marlena Devoe – is a simple seamstress, living alone, in an attic with a view across the roofs of Paris and she is in an advanced stage of consumption.

HER new friend Rodolfo – sung by Aaron Cawley – is a self-confessed dreamer, a writer barely scraping a living and burning rejected texts to keep warm.

Analysis

IN the first quadro (act 1) he and his companions Marcello, Colline and Schaunard are living in poverty, hunger and cold – when we meet them it is Christmas Eve – yet Puccini writes music for them which unapologetically sentimentalises their predicament, music bursting with little melodies we can hum in the car on the way home, with little leitmotivs which are taken forward from scene to scene in an extended soundscape which, in Italian opera in February 1896, was without precedent.

THIS is equally true quadro 2 with the neo-realism of a bustling crowd and its ambient noises which risk disrupting the musical coherence of the whole scene, by which I mean the music of the principals seems to emerge sporadically from the crowd only to be swallowed up by the urgent babble of street vendors, children running about playing and shouting and, to accommodate this style of theatre, Puccini changes the tempi, dynamics and texture of the music until it all hushes while everyone focuses on the arrival of Marcello’s old flame the self-promoting civetta or coquette Musetta and her show-stopping, scene-stealing waltz song.

AS quadro 3 opens that soundscape changes radically to something more intimate and early-morning-atmospheric as Puccini finally gets into his stride in what he called his opera of little things, piccole cose, all delicately sketched, relevant to the narrative, each cleverly attached to the musical spinal cord of the opera: un camino, a smoky stove, una chiave, a lost key, una tosse, a consumptive cough, una cuffietta rosa, a pink bonnet, gli orecchini, Musetta’s ear-rings, un manicotto, a muff for Mimì’s cold hands and la vecchia zimarra, Colline’s old overcoat.

EACH of this opera’s set piece arias is a musically substantial statement: for example Rodolfo and Mimì sing of themselves in the first person, as does Musetta later, and all of this in curiously prosaic language underwritten by the colours and textures of the soaring poetry of the music and those now familiar melodies and harmonies which have engaged and entranced us for over a hundred years in ways that perhaps only Mozart’s music has ever done.

SO as we suspend our disbelief at improbable plot-points and  dramatically under-developed characters and as we begin to succumb to the marijuana of the astonishing richness of the music, we are drawn, some of us against our better judgment, into the shallow lives of long-suffering Marcello, the initially waspish Musetta, the capricious Rodolfo and the plaintive, fragile Mimì as their musically well-defined personalities take us over.

AND once that emotional engagement is locked into place and our expectations are fulfilled we experience a poignancy, a sense of loss, the turning of the earth, where tragedy supplants earlier happiness and we, the watchers in the dark, are the first to notice that Mimì is more than resting riposa, she is beyond calm tranquilla  - è spirata! she has breathed her last.

*

ON behalf of Vivian Coates, our cast, orchestra and  crew we thank you for your support for our efforts to stage indigenous repertory opera in Dublin without a single €uro of public funding. These are difficult times for the arts-in-performance in Ireland and opera initiatives such as this are unbelievably under-resourced from our taxes. But instead of sitting in a corner and sulking Lyric Opera is proud to mark 25 years in business as we prepare to bring you our first Rossini opera, Il Barbiere di Siviglia (1816), at NCH on 12, 13, and 15 October 2019.

DURING this presentation the production on DVD used to illustrate it was from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden with Ileana Cotrubas, Neil Shicoff and Marilyn Zschau (February 1982).

©georgefleetonmmxix