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Douglas Messerli | "Facing the Cold" (on Puccini's La Bohème)
facing the cold
Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa (libretto), based on Scénes de la vie de bohème by Henri Murger, Giacomo Puccini
(music), La Bohème Robert Dornhelm (director), La Bohème [a film] / 2008
On Sunday, September 27, 2009, Howard and I attended a movie presentation of
the opera La Bohème at the Music Hall theater in Beverly Hills.
intention in this short piece is not particularly to evaluate the film or opera
itself, I should mention that I found a great many of the filmic details to be
quite annoying. Dornhelm's aerial flights between scenes gave the "realist"
drama a kind fairy-tale like quality, as if God-in-all-his-wisdom were looking
down on these poor folk, which was further enhanced by an presentation of the
Latin Quarter—which in this version looked more like some Alpine village—in
black and white before fading into color.
throughout the film was poor, with obviously false snowflakes alternating
between blizzard and gentle snowfall in a matter of seconds. Mimi's eyes in
some scenes looked less like a victim of consumption than that a prize-fight boxer
who'd been terribly roughed up; yet a few seconds later her makeup lightened
and she was relatively pale.
presented some of the operatic duets as internal dialogues rather than sung
recitatives, giving the characters a strangely mute appearance, often at the
most lyrical moments of the music.
For the most part, the singing was admirable, with beautiful
performances by Rolando Villazón as Rodolfo, Anna Nerebko as Mimi, and Nicole
Cabell as Musetta. But why Dornhelm could not find two Baritones, Marcello and
Schaunard, who could both act and sing (George von Bergen's and Adrian Eröd's
performances were sung by Boaz Daniel and Stephane Degout) is beyond me. I
thought every young Baritone cut his teeth on these roles? I found the lip-synching
For all that the
opera was as joyful and emotionally wrenching as any La Bohème, and most
of the rather geriatric audience could be observed weeping at opera's end.
Normally, I might
not have even written on such a well-known chestnut, presuming there is little
more to be said. Yet, given this year's selected "topic,"
"Facing the Heat," I could not but observe that the major tropes of
this work are related; throughout the opera the characters seek, other than
food and the money to purchase and sustain them, primarily only three things:
heat, light, and love. Of course, love can also provide some spiritual heat and
light, and light, in turn, often results in heat and, particularly in the
Spring, emanations of love.
The problem for these
bohemians however, one they daily face, is that they have little of the first
two. Luigi Illica's and Giuseppe Giacosa's Paris has always seemed to me to be
more like a Siberian settlement than the City of Light. Yes, we know it snows
in Paris, and the temperature can be frigid; in January of this year, thousands
of travelers were stranded at Charles DeGaulle International Airport, the
Eiffel Tower was closed, and temperatures for several weeks plunged to 10
Celsius. But most would tell you that while it snows in Paris, it is not a
common event. Yet the world of La Bohème is a particularly dark one, in
which, so it seems, every day is a frigid challenge.
Roldolfo and his
friends begin the opera singing of their cold bodies, determining to burn
either the room's only chair or Marcello's new painting; Rodolfo offers up the
pages of new play, which "perform" very badly. The "play,"
so they jest, is not one that will last. Schaunard arrives just in time, food
and wood for the fireplace in hand; he has been paid for playing the piano for
Soon after, with
Rodolfo alone in the room, Mimi knocks, claiming her candle has gone out, and
much of the rest of the scene is spent with the two of them crawling about in
the dark as they look for her lost key and fall madly in love. Rodolfo's first
touch of her shivering hand reveals what will remain the theme throughout the
opera, how to keep Mimi warm. As their candles both dwindle, they sing of their
dreams, love of the Spring and light, Mimi explaining her pleasure in roses.
One of the first of
Rodolfo's acts after meeting Mimi is to buy her a bonnet, his attempt,
symbolically, to warm her. The Second Act continues the warming theme with
food, drink, and the emotionally-wrought and comic song of Musetta, aimed primarily
at her former lover, Marcello. Sparks fly. All in all, this is the most
well-lit and warmest scene in the entire production.
For Act Three, performed entirely in the
cold winter air and, symbolically, at the very gate of the City, is the coldest
of the opera. The characters remain not only outside of society and at the very
edge of the City, but literally outside on the street. It is here, after
suffering her lover's symbolic heat of his jealousy and fury that Mimi tells
Marcello of Rodolfo's behavior and determines to leave him. But, as we know,
she does not return home, staying to overhear Rodolfo's woeful tale of her
tuberculosis and her certain death, all made worse by the fact that he has no
way of altering their fate. His own poverty provides no warmth for the frozen
woman, no light, and, in this context, no proper expression of his love. In
this regard Puccini and his librettists literally create a "frieze,"
placing their characters costumed, in this movie version, in dark coats and
dresses set against the white frozen world in which they are attempting to
survive. As if Rodolfo's sorrow and Mimi's shocking discovery of her own
condition were not enough, Marcello and Musetta also begin to fight, the
terrified foursome revealing even further that love is nearly impossible in the
world they inhabit.
Rodolfo and Mimi are
too deeply in love, however, to separate in this frozen landscape; they can
only wait until April, when, at least, light returns and the flowers, and with
them come the warmth of Spring and Summer.
The end of this constant struggle, the
necessity of having to continually face the cold, is played out in the last
act, inevitably with Mimi's death. Yet even here, as they try to symbolically
warm her, Musetta and Marcello running out to buy Mimi a muff, there is little
warmth and even less light. Even trying to warm Mimi's medicine is an effort,
as the flame threatens to go out. Singing to his coat—the only thing he has to
keep the cold away from his flesh—Colline prepares to pawn it, sharing the
money with his fellow sufferers. Love, it is clear, has survived in all of
these good people, but without heat or light their love cannot heal or salve
Los Angeles, September 28, 2009
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (September