"La Boheme": An incontestable masterpiece?

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"La Boheme": An incontestable masterpiece?

Based on some exchanges on another thread, where Puccini's Boheme came to fore (or at least one of its characters), I had a tour de table with some melomanes, Opera experts and old professors on the essence of this Opera. So, I offer some of my findings for further discussion...evaluation and possible discourse:

In Boheme all the virtues, which characterizes the musical and dramatic style of Puccini, are met. On one hand, there is the theatrical talent of the composer, his ability to pass easily from comedy to tragedy and creates complete characters, mostly the female ones. On the other, his musical inspiration, which is expressed with melodic tunes, particularly brief, but of superb beauty and appeal.

The Orchestra, which is exploited in a very inventive way, is transformed in one of the actors of the plot and unites the different musical pieces, fully integrating them in unfolding the drama. The influence of the late Verdi, predominantly of Falstaff, is witnessed both by the way the plot is exploited and by the melodic line, which has always been based on the lyric discourse and adapted to the stage action. From the other great composer of the 19th century, namely Wagner, Puccini borrowed the leit-motiv, these brief melodic tunes or phrases, representing human characters or situations, which our Italian composer uses as vague recollections from what we have already seen or heard.

Puccini once has claimed that he is exclusively interested in "small" things and he does not intend to deal with anything else but that. This clarification of his intentions may help us to comprehend what La Boheme is all about: an Opera with no particular plot, but which has as its basic angle the tragic love between two humble , almost anonymous people. (A great subject for the thread on Love in Classical Music). Particularly, Puccini is very keen on portraying, in a very refined way, the character of her heroine (Mimi): a creature vulnerable, fragile, but adorable, gentle and full of emotions. At the same time, however, the ominous presence of Death is evident from the outset, giving an incredible balance to the musical and dramatic development of the work (another important subject for the Death thread).

So, do we have a masterpiece, malgre' tout and beyond any specific criticism or is an easily dismissable work, particularly with today's (dreadful, ominous) standards? Discussion is invited on the substance of the work and not that much on recordings. However, by all means, you are welcome to jump on any aspect of the whole thing you may deem it necessary.

Parla

RE: "La Boheme": An incontestable masterpiece?

oui

RE: "La Boheme": An incontestable masterpiece?

Devon Farmer wrote:

oui

Seconded.

JKH

RE: "La Boheme": An incontestable masterpiece?

Alors... Bien entendu!

(Do you have, however, to add something beyond the...obvious response? You are most welcome).

Parla

RE: "La Boheme": An incontestable masterpiece?

Yes, up to a point, though I wouldn't put it on a level with Verdi's "Falstaff": the characters don't really develop and are rather shallow. I find Violetta's death more moving than Mimi's - Puccini rather "hams up" the final page. However, he is a master of memorable tunes and of dramatic pacing. There isn't a dull moment in the whole opera.

Adrian

RE: "La Boheme": An incontestable masterpiece?

Agreed, up to a point, Adrian3. Verdi was a musical genius; he knew how to develop musical ideas in great Arias, Cabalettas, Chorus etc. So, Violetta's death is a musical gem, first of all. Falstaff is also a very tight musical work. You remember very few particular moments but what counts is the total work.

On the contrary, in Puccini, theatre is the key. He is a master of manipulating the scenes, even for a minimal plot and insignificant characters (contrary to Verdi). For example in the whole First Act, things look so tedious, trivial to come to a gradual complete overturn of the situation with the entrance of Mimi. Still, the change is elusive: in Rodolfo's Aria "Che gelida manina", we have to wait till almost the end to reach this magical musical moment of "...una dolce speranza". Then, in Mimi's Aria, built in an unexpected but very theatrical way, comes almost mid-way this magnificent musical and poetically poignant line "...il primo sole e mio. Il primo bacio dell'aprile e mio!".

So, definitely Puccini is not the genius of Verdi, but he managed to create great Operas, like "La Boheme", with a sort of...minimum service, while Verdi...(see Aida). Different stuff.

Parla

RE: "La Boheme": An incontestable masterpiece?

"You remember very few particular moments ."

Oh, but I do - right from the start. There is the delicious moment when Falstaff remembers the meals he has enjoyed when presented with the bill he cannot pay. There are so many other moments that I'll just pick out a few favourites: "Quand'ero paggio", remembering his sprightly youth; his entry, dressed to kill, after Ford's Jealousy monologue and at the start of Act III when Falstaff starts to feel the heart-warming effects of a glass of sherry after being ducked in the Thames. Finally, there is the unforgettable, haunting little melody of Fenton and Nanetta's lovesong.

Adrian

RE: "La Boheme": An incontestable masterpiece?

parla wrote:

.......Falstaff is also a very tight musical work. You remember very few particular moments but what counts is the total work.

Well I remember many particular moments, but I think I know what Parla is driving at in that Falstaff is certainly not a 'numbers' opera in the same way that could be said of Boheme (and countless others, of course; it's not a pejorative term in my book). However, despite my love of Verdi, Falstaff is my least favourite of his entire cannon. I've never quite been able to work out why. Owning  several recordings, repeated listening and having seen it staged several times hasn't made any difference. It's an opera that's impossible not to admire musically, but it just doesn't have a hold on my affections somehow. 

parla wrote:

On the contrary, in Puccini, theatre is the key. He is a master of manipulating the scenes, even for a minimal plot and insignificant characters (contrary to Verdi). For example in the whole First Act, things look so tedious, trivial to come to a gradual complete overturn of the situation with the entrance of Mimi.........

Well, leaving aside the fact that Verdi was a supreme man of the theatre and it was as intrinsic to his whole musical lifeblood as it was to Puccini's, the first Act of Boheme 'tedious' until Mimi's entrance? Surely you cannot be serious?

JKH

RE: "La Boheme": An incontestable masterpiece?

On the contrary, I'm quite serious, JHK.

The first Act, till the entrance of Mimi, moves deliberately (as even professional singers, experts and scholars admit) to the superficial, outwardly funny (comedy), trivial everyday life of the "bohemian" people. Puccini keep it..."light" and almost indifferent, so that the contrast with the quite meaningful, poignant and heavily emotional "numbers" of the two consecutive Arias of Rodolfo and Mimi along with the subsequent magnificent Duetto can bring the whole act in a culminating and memorable finale (which, in theatrical terms, Verdi or anybody else never managed to achieve). At the same time, with the entrance of Mimi, the sense of the Drama starts unfolding, with the ominous and yet elusive presence of Death wandering around Mimi's inevitable fate.

Adrian3, Of course you may remember certain moments of Falstaff, like the humorous "Reverenza" passage, but, as JHK underlines, it's not an Opera of "numbers"; it works as a whole theatrical and musical achievement. (Which, at least in musical terms, is more important than the "culminating points" Operas).

Parla

"La Boheme": An incontestable masterpiece?

parla wrote:

On the contrary, I'm quite serious, JHK.

A truer word was never spoken

 

parla wrote:

The first Act, till the entrance of Mimi, moves deliberately (as even professional singers, experts and scholars admit) to the superficial, outwardly funny (comedy), trivial everyday life of the "bohemian" people............ Operas).

I see the experts and scholars are being mustered again. However, I've never heard of anyone from either category, nor any professional singer I know who's performed it, ever describing it as 'tedious'. The  contrast that your synopsis highlights is exactly, of course, what Puccini intended for dramatic and musical effect. One thing he didn't intend, however, was to compose 'tedious' music - and he didn't do so. If you find anything before the arrival of Mimi bores you, well that's one view, just not one that I suspect will find much, if any, support.  

parla wrote:

.......the subsequent magnificent Duetto can bring the whole act in a culminating and memorable finale (which, in theatrical terms, Verdi or anybody else never managed to achieve)

If you mean that purely in terms of the theatrical coup of the offstage conclusion, that's an argument. If you mean it more generally, then again, I don't think you'll find many takers. Act 1 of Verdi's Otello, perhaps?

JKH

RE: "La Boheme": An incontestable masterpiece?

So, JKH, am I so difficult to get through? I never said that Mr. Puccini intended to compose "tedious" music. I said, exactly what you described as to what happens before Mimi's arrival, namely that it has been done for dramatic and musical effect. Which, however, make the beginning of the Opera look somehow tedious compared to what follows. So, it's not the music; it the whole thing.

Besides, I never said I felt "bored" about "anything happened before the arrival of Mimi" (otherwise, I wouldn't even question the Opera as an "incontestable masterpiece"). I just said that, compared to the immense beauty and theatrical drama of the two Arias and the Duet, the first part looks weak, indifferent or superficial, dealing with the trivialities of the everyday life. However, it is and looks as an integral part of the whole Act. That's, in a way, the strength of Puccini's perception and eventual writing.

As for the Finale, I didn't mean only the "offstage conclusion", but the built-up of it from the two Arias and the development of the Duet itself as a whole. By all means, I don't mean either that's the only one in the Opera literature. Otello's First Act has similar qualities, but, in a quite different vein. The two characters are strong, powerful, rich (coming from a very robust and solid play of literature). So, the music has different connotations and nuances, the interpretation requires stronger performances (at least from the side of the Tenor) and the drama is built in a different way, based in any case on the original play. On the contrary, Puccini deals with two almost anonymous, very ordinary and poor people, portraying (musically) them with the beauty of their fragility and emotional gentleness. Still, different stuff, but both (Operas) great altogether.

Parla

RE: "La Boheme": An incontestable masterpiece?

parla wrote:

Still, different stuff, but both (Operas) great altogether.

Parla

Well on that at least, we are in complete agreement Parla!

JKH

RE: "La Boheme": An incontestable masterpiece?

Parla, I'm on tenterhooks awaiting the names of all those experts, including singers, who've described the tedium of the opening of Boheme. Please put me out of my misery.

RE: "La Boheme": An incontestable masterpiece?

Come on, Tagalie. If they were recognisable big names I would mention them with their names. There are plenty of unsung heroes (as I have mentioned in other threads), all over the world, who made names only in their places or their countries or even in their regions. As I travel and live in different countries, all these years, and dealing with Classical Music mostly on local basis, I deal primarily with these people.

The benefit of these collaborations and relationships is that they are deprived of any public relations niceties, the hypocrisy and la follie de grandeur, and some more impediments of talking freely and in depth on issues of Classical Music.

At the opening of my introduction of this thread, I said I had a tour de table with all these friends/experts (some of them are professional Opera singers). Then, I presented my findings out of our deliberations.

The reason we agreed about the "tedious" beginning lies on the rather superficial rhythms of the orchestra showing the light side of life of the bohemians. The whole scene has the air of an opera comique, with a spirited orchestration framing a dialogue with brief, almost abrupt phrases. Even the aria Nei cieli bigi of Rodolfo has the form of a simple arioso. The transformation that takes place with the entrance of Mimi and the subsequent constant ascent to the highest possible drama and musical enchantment make the beginning look trivial, superficial or even tedious. However, it serves perfectly the plot, if not the integrity of the musical score. In sum, the part till the entrance of Mimi is not bad theatre or even bad Opera. If you listen (or watch) it, as an independent part of the whole work has its own values and can be appreciated accordingly. However, in comparison with what follows, it looks as a light prelude to the actual drama.

Puccini is not the only one who resorted to this kind of "uneven" beginnings. Quite a few composers (and great ones) opted to start with something less worthy with a view to developing the plot and enhancing the quality of what has to follow musically. See, for example, the beginning of Cosi fan tutte with the trivial trio La mia Dorabella capace non' e...La mia Fiordiligi capace non' e...

I don't dare to think what might happen, if we move to the second Act...

Parla

RE: "La Boheme": An incontestable masterpiece?

parla wrote:

Come on, Tagalie. If they were recognisable big names I would mention them with their names. There are plenty of unsung heroes (as I have mentioned in other threads), all over the world, who made names only in their places or their countries or even in their regions. As I travel and live in different countries, all these years, and dealing with Classical Music mostly on local basis, I deal primarily with these people.

That's OK, Parla. Somehow or other I got the impression that these people, and the incredibly wise prof you generally invoke when your more bizarre statements come under attack, were household names not your mates down at the pub. My mistake.

I still can't figure out what your recent posts, on the assertion that Boheme is tedious up to Mimi's entry, are saying that the initial statement didn't say. Reading them, it's impossible to avoid the mental picture of a man digging a trench and throwing the excavations over his shoulder into the section he's just dug. Not that I'm looking for a labyrinthian response. I'm hoping there are other forum members (JKH, you seemed to have a handle on what was going on and Troyen, you always seemed to be able to understand what Parla was saying) who could jump in and help me in less than 400 words. Personally, I always thought the opening of Boheme was a superb scene-setting for what happens later, not to mention the foundation of some important musical themes.

RE: "La Boheme": An incontestable masterpiece?

tagalie wrote:

Personally, I always thought the opening of Boheme was a superb scene-setting for what happens later, not to mention the foundation of some important musical themes.

Absolutely spot on.

JKH

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