For good reason, the Metropolitan Opera has staged Puccini’s “La Bohème” more than any other opera. Fans all over the world care about Mimi and Rodolfo as if they were family – or earlier versions of themselves. The opera is so emotionally powerful people name pets after the characters. Do you know the Durango couple who named their three cats Mimi, Rodolfo and Musetta?
And then there’s the struggling-student motif. Rodolfo (tenor Michael Fabiano), an aspiring poet, shares a freezing Parisian apartment with three buddies: Marcello (Lucas Meachem), Schaunard (Alexey Lavrov) and Colline (Matthew Rose). Collectively, they are grand opera’s quintessential starving artists. Mimi (soprano Sonya Yoncheva, lately of “Tosca” fame) is a close neighbor, a practitioner of a minor art – embroidery – and doomed to an early death. She’s the tragic heroine of the story, unlucky in life, health and love.
This Saturday morning at Fort Lewis College, the Met’s famous Franco Zeffirelli’s production will be live streamed starting earlier than usual, at 10:30 a.m., and running about three and a half hours with two intermissions.
Puccini drew on a series of fictional pieces that appeared in 1848 by Henri Murger. His Scénes de la vie bohème centered on a group of friends who shared an attic apartment in the Latin Quarter of the Parisian Left Bank. In 1849, Théodore Barriére, an equally young and aspiring playwright, talked Murger into co-writing a play based on one of the stories. The dramatic version was so successful that in 1851, Murger went a step further. He linked his original stories and published a novel romanticizing the quintessential starving artist who lives for art and is confounded by love.
Forty-five years later, Puccini seized on the popular work as the basis for a new opera. On February 1, 1896, “La Bohème” opened in Turin, conducted by a very young Arturo Toscanini.
The opera is set in 1830 and begins with a light-hearted scene between two of the four friends who share the garret apartment. Rodolfo and Marcello are sort-of working when Schaunard and Colline arrive with good news, a bit of a windfall. They decide to celebrate at their favorite hangout, Café Momus. As they leave, a chance encounter brings Rodolfo and Mimi together, and love casts its tragic spell.
Acts I and IV stay close to Murger’s original narrative, but Acts II and III were largely invented by Puccini’s librettists: Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. They decided the basic love story needed complications, so they added a falling out and a secondary liaison between Musetta (Susanna Phillips) and Marcello.
“Bohème” quickly became a sensation, partly because of the interwoven themes of art, poverty and free love, and largely because of Puccini’s heart-melting music. Productions followed all over Europe and the United States. Subsequently, movies and Broadway musicals based on “La Bohème” have achieved enormous popularity, including “Moulin Rouge” and “Rent.”
The MET once again will mount Zeffirelli’s realistic production with the Italian film director’s period costumes and sets. Act II’s Parisian street scene and the alluring Café Momus is a wonder of vivid stage construction.
As thoroughly as you know the story, the ending is so musically and dramatically perfect that opera fans are known to weep every time they attend a performance.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theater Critics Association.