Monday, June 22, 2015

Douglas Messerli | "Facing the Cold" (on Puccini's La Bohème)

facing the cold
by Douglas Messerli

Luigi 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.
      Although my 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. 
      Continuity 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.
      Dornhelm also 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 distracted.
      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 a parrot.
      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 the living.
Los Angeles, September 28, 2009
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (September 2009).


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