San Diego Opera brings back those lovable artists who cavort gaily around their Parisian garret despite being poor and cold. Their desire for artistic recognition and a lasting love has eluded the poet, the painter, the musician and the philosopher who struggle to pay rent and heat the garret.
In spite of their desperate status, the reckless quartet goes off to celebrate Christmas Eve in the warmth of Café Momus just as a frail seamstress enters their dark lair with a candle blown out in the drafty hall. It was love at first sight when Rodolfo comes to Mimi's rescue in two of opera's most popular songs and a rousing duet to close Act I.
In reliable operatic tradition, the love affair that began in Act I reaches a climax in Act II and then deteriorates along with Mimi's health in Act III. The second act highlights a festive evening for the bohemians at the local bistro where a rich and aged suitor of flirtatious Musetta is stuck with the bill for all the gang.
Musetta, who has a showstopper aria at the cafe, is the sometimes lover of Marcello, an impassioned painter and roommate of Rodolfo. The stormy romance is renewed in Act III reuniting Marcello and Musetta while Mimi and Rodolfo are splitting. The lovers find it unbearable to be apart, yet impossible to be together. Love does triumph in the end when Musetta brings a frail Mimi to the garret to die in Rodolfo's arms in the final act.
San Diego Opera opens its season on Jan. 30 with four performances of Puccini's ever-popular fourth opera in the Civic Theatre. American soprano Ellie Dehn and Polish tenor Piotr Beczala are the luckless lovers. Local talent Priti Gandhi sings Musetta, and resident conductor Karen Keltner leads the ensemble from the podium. "La bohème" is sung in Italian with English text above the stage.
The music for "La bohème" echoes the romantic style of the prior Puccini scores that captured audiences ever since the premiere in Turin in 1896 under celebrated conductor Arturo Toscanini. Despite a cool reception by the critics, the opera is top-ranked in the 10 most popular operas category. For San Diego, it was the premiere production in the new Civic Theatre that launched SDO in 1965.
Nine prior productions over the past 45 years established "La bohème" as the company's signature opera. It is performed every five years to delight the regulars and to draw young people new to opera. The story of the starving artists is based on a novel and play, "Scenes of Bohemian Life," set in the Parisian Latin Quarter of 1830.
It is a coincidence that the same theme of star-crossed lovers is also found in the closing opera of the season, Verdi's "La traviata." The scene is still Paris but in the salons of wealthy aristocrats where a young swain is smitten with a beautiful courtesan. Like Mimi, she suffers from consumption. The affair ends when Violetta abandons her lover for the sake of his family but is reunited as she dies in his arms. Standard fare for 19th century opera plots.
Puccini was in competition with a contemporary Italian composer, Ruggiero Leoncavallo (composer of "Pagliacci"), to adapt the story of the bohemians to the opera stage. Puccini's version won out, as the other "La bohème" is seldom performed except as a novelty comparison. "Leave it to the public to decide," Puccini responded to Leoncavallo's objections, and they did.
At the time of the premiere, Puccini was riding a crest of popularity following the successful production of "Manon Lescaut" three years earlier. At first the critics branded "La bohème" as triviality, lacking the dramatic depth of his first success. However, the public trumped the critics by making the opera a favorite.
Performances at the Civic Theatre are: 7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 30 and Tuesday, Feb. 2; 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 5; 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 7. For ticket information, call 619-533 7000 or visit sdopera.com.
Ford is a past president of San Diego Opera and supports the opera archive at San Diego State University.