One of the most performed operas in the world, La bohème, was composed by Giacomo Puccini to a libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. Its world premiere took place in Turin in early 1896. It’s based on a collection of stories published in 1851 called Scènes de la vie de bohème by Henri Murger.
This 2018 open air production by the Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour in Australia was conducted by Brian Castles-Onion and directed by Andy Morton, with the Opera Australia orchestra and chorus.
Originally set in the 1830s Bohemian quarters in Paris the plot centers around group of impoverished artists. The poet Rodolfo (Ho-Yoon Chung) meets a seamstress, Mimì (Iulia Maria Dan), and they immediately fall in love. The painter Marcello (Samuel Dundas) has a tempestuous sometimes relationship with the glamorous singer Musetta (Julie Lea Goodwin). Musician Schaunard (Christopher Hillier) and philosopher Colline (Richard Anderson) make up the rest of the crew, dodging the landlord’s rent demands, celebrating once they do get some money in, and living their best lives.
Benoit/Alcindoro: John Bolton Wood
Officer: Douglas McRae
Sergeant: James Olds
Parpignol: Simon Gilkes
Child: Sandy Leung
This discussion contains spoilers for both plot and ending.
Set & Costume Designer: Dan Potra
Lighting Designer: Matthew Marshall
Sound Designer: Tony David Cray
Video Designer: Marco Devetak
Choreographer: Kate Champion
Assistant Director: Sally Hare
Assistant Director: Trent Kidd
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Francis: Good morning, day, afternoon, evening or night! By the time this goes out we’ll both be busy preparing for Christmas.
Traxy: Sounds about right. We tried to find a suitably seasonal opera to discuss to get into the Christmas spirit, and I think we’ve done well here.
F: Not overtly Christmassy, even though it starts out on Christmas Eve, but they have a Christmas tree front and center and the circular stage is decorated to look like it’s covered in snow and ice.
T: In the words of Shrek, “that’ll do, donkeh, that’ll do”.
F: So get some hot chocolate and wrap yourself in a warm blanket and let’s get down to discussing La Bohème, one of Puccini’s most famous and most beloved operas. An opera that has inspired works like the musical Rent and the movie Moulin Rouge!
T: Have you seen either of those?
F: I’ve seen Moulin Rouge!
F: It was, ah … chaotic.
T: Good way of putting it, actually. I remember once upon a time we were supposed to talk about a film as an English assignment, and someone in my group really didn’t get on with Moulin Rouge!. She hated it!
F: Hate is a strong word to use on a movie.
T: Well, she thought it was dreadful. She didn’t like that they’d used modern music for it, which is one of the things I really like about it. She also wasn’t surprised that I liked it, but there you go.
F: Didn’t like you much either, huh?
T: Eh, it was like 20 years ago. Water under the bridge.
F: So why do you like the modern music?
T: They sing the songs themselves, and I think it fits the format very well in this instance. It’s suitably bonkers. Wish I could say the same for the same director’s take on The Great Gatsby. Have you seen it? The one with Leonardo DiCaprio.
F: That was the Moulin Rouge! guy?!
F: It makes so much sense now.
T: What about the modern music in that one?
F: Hey, you do a movie about the 1920s, I expect me some ragtime. Jazz. You know, real music.
T: Careful now.
F: We’ve been through this. I don’t rate modern music, and I definitely don’t rate it in a movie portraying a period with far superior music.
T: Not a Jay-Z fan, then?
F: That ain’t even funny. You want something funny? Eddie Cantor.
T: The guy who died like sixty years ago?
F: Yes. They don’t make ‘em like they used to. Some of his material is on Spotify. Just like Enrico Caruso. Now there’s a voice!
T: And he’s only been dead like a hundred years.
F: But the legend lives on! Much like Puccini’s operas, as a matter of fact. This one in particular. There’s something, dare I say, ethereal about it?
T: It’s certainly enduring, and sort of timeless, in a way. Which is funny when you think about it. Not too many people in Paris die of consumption nowadays, for instance.
F: That’s what we should do next month, you know.
T: What, die of consumption?!
F: No! Bookend it with the other extremely popular opera set in Paris where the soprano dies of consumption.
T: I do like me some Traviata, and you’re right, they’re similar in that way, except Verdi’s characters are rich and live in opulence instead of squalor.
F: Just so. The squalor in question being shown with a few pieces of tattered old furniture and then we have the big video screens showing an attic window with a view over the Parisian rooftops. How romantic.
T: I didn’t find Paris at all enchanting when I went there, but I was young and basically slept on a yoga mat in a big room with all of my classmates, so I probably didn’t sleep properly for a week.
F: But at least you’ve been to Paris.
T: Yes. Would be interesting to go back some time.
F: Without dying of consumption.
T: Ideally. And sleeping in a bed in a hotel room, not the floor of a youth hostel run by monks.
F: If we go back to the topic of old versus new for a moment, not to reopen the movie discussion from earlier, but because this production is a blend of old and new.
T: Yes, that’s true. Modern clothing, sort of, there’s the blow-up chair in the penthouse and so on.
F: Does it detract attention or does it work?
T: I think it works. It’s part of what makes it timeless. The mix of costumes of different styles and different eras means you’re not quite sure when it’s meant to be set. Musetta’s first outfit makes her look like a glamorous film star from the 1940s or something.
F: Musetta is nothing but glamorous. Always. What do you make of her as a character?
T: I think she’s a woman who knows what she wants, and how to get it, and she’s not afraid to go after it. In that sense she’s quite inspirational.
F: But not in others?
T: Well, she toys with Marcello a lot, and I don’t necessarily think that’s a good thing. It’s perhaps not the healthiest of relationships.
F: What about her sugar daddy? She runs out and he’s left paying the bill at Momus.
T: I’m sure he can afford it, on the other hand, and I doubt he’s under any illusions about the transactional nature of their relationship.
F: Maybe. You know what my biggest problem is with the first two acts?
T: Not a clue. I find them joyous. There’s fire handling and fireworks, a carnival and let’s face it, pretty good comedy between the main guys.
F: Yeah, okay, I don’t disagree, but have you seen those salmon colored suits?
T: They’re hard to miss. They look like they were made from those stripey hotel bed sheets.
F: I wouldn’t be caught dead in one of those suits.
T: Neither would I.
F: Good, our friendship remains intact. The joyousness of the first two acts are a fantastic counterpoint to the latter two acts, don’t you think?
T: Yeah, because the misery starts setting in by the start of act three. The honeymoon is well and truly over by then.
F: But the end of the first act, the duet between Mimì and Rodolfo. God, it’s beautiful.
T: I think it’s interesting that Mimì passing out on the sofa could so easily have been portrayed as really creepy, but it doesn’t go there.
F: Nor should it. I gotta hand it to them. Sometimes modern productions make good choices. Asking to light a cigarette instead of a lantern is inspired. That works. Much as I dislike modern stagings, this don’t irritate me.
F: Sometimes I surprise myself.
T: Would you go as far as to say you like it?
F: Wouldn’t go that far. No, no, no, I’m kidding. The main players are good actors as well as singers, and they’re sympathetic. I enjoyed this more than I thought I would, but La Bohème is iconic. Hard not to like, whatever they do to it.
T: Can a production fuck it up?
F: Oh yeah, for sure.
T: I guess if you can make a mess out of a Jane Austen novel, I guess you could mess up Puccini too.
F: You could, but it should be considered a crime to turn a Puccini opera into something unenjoyable. Fortunately, this has plenty of merits.
T: Unlike Rodolfo.
F: Did we watch the same opera?
T: Jealous arsehole. Marcello is entirely correct, when people are like that to each other, they really shouldn’t be together. Act three Rodolfo and Mimì make Marcello’s and Musetta’s relationship look perfectly healthy.
F: In a way it kind of is. They know where they are with one another, even if they argue.
T: Yup. Although Musetta isn’t happy with “lovers who think they’re husbands”.
F: She ain’t the kind who wants to be tied down.
T: It’s such a shame that Rodolfo shows his love for Mimì and how he’s afraid of losing her by being a jealous jerk, though.
F: Like we said before, therapy was not a thing back then. And, side note, the librettists actually wrote a whole act that explains Rodolfo’s jealousy.
T: Wait, what? There’s a missing act?
F: Puccini never used it in his score. People didn’t know there was a missing act until the 1950s when some papers were donated to a museum.
T: Cool! Although, also, a shame that it wasn’t included. What was it about?
F: To summarize, there’s a party where Musetta introduces Mimì to a viscount. They dance, and Rodolfo gets jealous.
T: That’s it?
F: In a “too long, didn’t read” way, yeah.
T: So he’s still a jerk, is what you’re saying.
F: Tomayto, tomahto.
T: What strikes me is that it isn’t obvious to Mimì that she’s gravely ill.
F: Oh. I thought you were going to say something about the gun.
T: That too, but someone wasting away of consumption is completely unaware of wasting away of consumption? It was such a common killer back then, how can you not realise your health is declining, at the very least?
F: Never underestimate the human brain’s capacity for rationalizing and outright denial.
T: Ah, that’s a good point.
F: Nicer to brush off a cough with whatever other explanation you can think of that isn’t in effect a death sentence.
T: The whole of act three is such a downer, to be fair. I’m glad the fourth and final act at least starts out with some of the joy of the first half of the opera.
F: Everything seems a little more positive in spring. That’s why it’s my favorite time of year. Outside of Christmas, of course.
T: Of course, goes without saying.
F: Gotta keep it seasonal.
T: I know act four starts with Rodolfo and Marcello pining over their former lovers, but the next scene they really go for the whole slapstick thing, and …
F: You can see why this opera is so beloved the world over?
T: Yeah. I mean, the music helps. Even though a part of said music involves Colline basically doing “an ode to my coat”.
F: Hey, it’s a very good coat. Gotta give him that.
T: It must be. He seems very fond of it. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t look like hotel bedding.
F: That would make any coat instantly more likable.
T: I’m not sure why Mimì’s hair gets shorter and shorter, but Musetta goes from silvery glamour puss in act two, to some kind of latex number in act three, only to dress really modestly in act four.
F: Marcello puts on a nice shirt too.
T: To show how everything and everyone is changing. It’s clever, really.
F: And then …
T: The ending.
F: Rip my heart out, why don’tcha? Every time!
T: That’s the thing for me. If you’re watching something really heart-wrenching, you want to feel something. If they’re showing a tragic death scene, you need to be moved, or what’s the point?
F: Puccini is the go-to guy for emotion.
T: Yes, from what I’ve seen I agree, but you could stage something so poorly that a death scene doesn’t hurt you watching it. If it leaves you cold, they’ve done it wrong. Either the direction is way off or the acting is too poor. The characters are suffering, and if you have any kind of empathy in you, you will not sit there and go “this is fine”. Someone dies, you should be upset about it!
F: Agreed. If you don’t feel like you’ve been punched in the gut when it’s over, is it even opera?
T: I remember seeing some tenors singing Nessun dorma in one of André Rieu’s Maastricht concerts and it left me completely unmoved. That song normally has me overcome with emotion! Even when it’s sung by complete novices as part of a charity telethon, or whatever, it still gets to me.
F: Yeah, if you don’t get it right, you ruin the whole thing.
T: I was in tears by the end of this production, though, I have to admit.
F: Puccini knew how to play the audience’s emotions like a fine-tuned instrument.
T: He sure did.
F: You don’t find it too melodramatic?
T: I mean, is it melodramatic? Yes. But in a sort of good old-fashioned way. I don’t think it’s maudlin.
T: It’s a man losing the woman he loves, and it’s a group of people losing a dear friend. It’s heartbreaking, and it hurts, and this cast portrays that so well.
F: Is that a thumbs up from you?
T: 100%. People love La Bohème because it really is very good. The music is fantastic, and I love how they have a callback to act one before she dies, where they reminisce about the night they first met.
F: On Christmas Eve.
T: On Christmas Eve, precisely.
F: It’s a beautiful opera in so many ways.
T: I can see why it’s so popular.
F: This must be the second Handa Opera we’ve seen now. I can’t remember.
F: Oh yeah, that’s right. I enjoy the grandeur of the open air scene, and how it allows for both these spectacular crowd scenes with bunches of balloons hanging from a crane, as well as the more intimate interactions.
T: Meanwhile there’s a cruise ship drifting past in the background.
F: It’s incredible how they manage to pull that off, and I like it.
T: The cruise ship going past?
F: No, the intimacy and the grandeur at the same time. The juxtaposition. I like what they’re doing. It’s refreshing.
T: Imagine that, you liking something contemporary.
F: Well, ya know. The music is still plenty old.
T: It’s La Bohème they go see at the Met in Moonstruck. Cher’s character has never been to the opera before and she gets really emotional.
F: That’s what I want people to see, to realize. Opera is a lot like the movies, but they only get one shot at getting it right every night, so they need to be highly skilled.
T: You’re right. They need to act, sing complicated melodies and high notes, remember song lyrics in foreign languages, emote, project their voices, and do it all while walking around on stage with no one to yell “cut!” so they can start again.
F: Opera is everything you could possibly want in entertainment. I hope more people dare try it so they can see what it’s like. You don’t need to dress up or leave the house. Just go on YouTube. Don’t know the language? Most of them are subtitled. You’ll be fine.
F: Which means there’s no excuse if you’re curious about opera but don’t have the time, money or inclination to dress up and go to your nearest opera venue. You can watch it in bed on a mobile device, if you like! For free, long as you got internet access.
T: Would you say La Bohème is a good opera for beginners?
F: Absolutely! Plot ain’t hard to follow, the music’s great, there’s comedy and tragedy alike. It’s a classic.
T: Speaking of comedy and tragedy, that’s what Christmas is going to be like if I don’t get everything done on time, so how about we stop here and reconvene after the holidays for another chat?
F: Great idea. Buon Natale to our readers, and thanks for sticking with us throughout 2022!
T: Thank you, and I wish you, Dear Reader, a Happy Solstice and a God Jul!
F: A presto and see you in 2023!