'Bohème': We'll Always Have Paris

Daniela Bruera as Musetta in La Scala's 2005 show. Washington National Opera's season-opener next month, with alternating casts, will be directed by the avant-garde Mariusz Trelinski.
Daniela Bruera as Musetta in La Scala's 2005 show. Washington National Opera's season-opener next month, with alternating casts, will be directed by the avant-garde Mariusz Trelinski. (By Marco Brescia -- La Scala Via Associated Press)
By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 26, 2007

There must be somebody out there left cold by Giacomo Puccini's "La Bohème." But who? -- and how?

If you don't respond to the frat-boy high jinks and intimate love music in the first act, the second act presents a bright, tuneful, crowded panorama of the city of Paris on a long ago Christmas Eve. If that still doesn't do it for you, Act 3 is among the most perfectly knit 25 minutes of music and drama ever accomplished. (Stephen Sondheim has called it his favorite act in Italian opera -- and the final quartet, with its citric pairing of sweet and sour lovers, quarreling and reconciling, might have come from his pen.) And then there is Act 4, which has inspired gentle Niagaras of private tears since the opera's premiere in 1896.

It ought to surprise nobody that "La Bohème" is coming back to the Kennedy Center this year. It comes back all the time, all over the world, and almost inevitably sells out, so it was a natural choice to open the 2007-08 Washington National Opera season. There will be nine performances, starting on Sept. 15 and continuing through the end of the month, with the matinee rendition on Sept. 23 telecast live to the Mall in what WNO calls a "gift to the people of Washington."

This is the third production of "La Bohème" that we have had from the WNO in the past dozen years, but it may be something out of the ordinary, as it will be staged by the avant-garde Polish director Mariusz Trelinski (it was originally presented at the National Opera of Warsaw). Trelinski would seem to be becoming a favorite director at the WNO; he was also responsible for the spartan "Madama Butterfly" that was presented last year.

And WNO General Director Placido Domingo and his associates have assembled two different casts to sing the opera on different nights. Domingo has stated that these casts should not be considered "first string" and "second string." Rather, they were to be separate but equal -- two completely different sets of musicians that would each bring the opera to life, each in its own way.

I was very fond of the loving, lovely rendition that Gian Carlo Menotti created for the WNO back in 1981 and last presented here in the late 1990s. Whatever one thought of Menotti's own music, he was always one of the most tender and sensitive stage directors in opera. His "Bohème" was no motley collection of temperamental young "stars" thrown together on a stage to coexist for a couple of hours, but rather the projection of a world in microcosm: pulsing, youthful, meticulously detailed and deeply believable.

At the Metropolitan Opera in New York, audiences come to see the spectacle in Franco Zeffirelli's grand production, no matter who is singing. Horses large and small prance across the stage in Act 2, with brass bands, carriages, children up way past their bedtime, men on stilts, people and activity everywhere. Charles Baudelaire wrote a celebrated prose poem about losing oneself -- or "bathing" -- in a crowd; this rendition of the second act remains the best visual representation of that delicious feeling I've ever encountered.

I wonder if there is another opera that so convincingly bewails the horrors of poverty while making most of the resultant hardships seem so romantic. Cold weather permeates "La Bohème," and yet the impression we take away with us is inevitably that of a suffusion of warmth.

Anyone who was ever young in a big city and devoted to an art likes to think it was something like this -- the late nights in crowded cafes, the fast-and-easy anti-authoritarianism, the idyllic cheapness of young love. These characters are timeless: In 1996, a composer named Jonathan Larson transplanted Mimi and Rodolfo to Manhattan's East Village in a surprise hit called "Rent." In "Rent," Mimi succumbs to AIDS, rather than tuberculosis.

It was near the end of "La Bohème" that what must have been the most unintentionally funny moment in the history of opera in Washington took place. One night in 1996, the English surtitles misfired in the last few minutes of a Kennedy Center performance, and Rodolfo responded to poor, dying Mimi's entreaties never to leave her, with the computer-generated message: "Your batteries are running low and your light has been dimmed."

Until recently, the audience for opera has been a notoriously timid one. The late Rudolf Bing, general manager of the Met from 1949 to 1972, once explained his working philosophy: If you wanted to produce successful opera in New York, he insisted, you would produce "Carmen," "Bohème" and "Traviata" one week and "Traviata," "Carmen" and "Bohème" the next. Mount a new work, he explained, and you could spray the house with machine gun fire on the third night and be pretty sure you wouldn't hit anybody. Lately, however, the operas of Philip Glass, John Adams, Mark Adamo and John Corigliano, among others, have begun to attract passionate attention not only from the intelligentsia but from plain old fans as well.

Still, a good "Bohème" might be the opera to which I'd take a friend who'd never been to one before. The melodies (some of them, at any rate) will likely be familiar; the spectacle should seduce viewers who have been "spoiled" by special effects from Broadway and the movies; the story is sympathetic and easy to follow: The initiate is guaranteed a good time. A Serious Appreciation of the Art may or may not result, but at least that crucial first night at the opera will be remembered with affection. And who knows where that can lead?

© 2007 The Washington Post Company