It was sixteen years ago that I first attended a production of the Manitoba Opera at the Centennial Concert Hall here in Winnipeg. The Manitoba Opera puts on two operas per season, one in the fall and one in the spring, with three shows per opera. The spring production in the 1997/1998 season was of Giocomo Puccini’s La Bohème. I purchased a ticket to the first of the three performances and was so captivated that I went back for the other two performances as well. I have since become a subscriber to the Manitoba Opera and last night once again saw a magnificent production of the opera that had first drawn me in almost two decades ago.
La Bohème has lost none of its power to charm, although exactly where the appeal in this opera lies is something that I cannot quite put my finger on. Could it be the characters?
I don’t think so. The poet Rodolfo and the painter Marcello are both quite realistic portrayals of modern artistic types, i.e., people far too full of themselves to be of any interest to anyone else. The philosopher and musician whose names elude me at the moment are for the most part forgettable. Marcello’s on-again, off-again, girlfriend Musetta, a brazenly selfish and worldly, social climbing, prima donna is more amusing than appealing, at least until her character shows an unexpected depth in the fourth and final act. The only consistently appealing character is Mimi, the Juliet to Rodolfo’s Romeo.
If it is not the characters, what about the plot?
This doesn’t seem to be the answer either. The plot is not particularly outstanding. I would say it is nothing to write home about but as I intend to write about it for the rest of this paragraph perhaps a different phrasing is called for. Just a head’s up, if you don’t care to have the ending of an opera that was first performed in 1896 revealed, you had better skip ahead. In the first act, Mimi comes by to borrow a light for her candle from Rodolfo who has lagged behind while the others have gone off to spend an unexpected windfall at an expensive café rather than use it to pay their rent. They fall in love at first sight and, in the second act, join the others at the café. There Musetta comes in, on the arm of a rich, old man that she dumped Marcello over, makes a big scene in which she reunited with Marcello, and they all take off leaving the poor old sucker to pay the bill. In the third act Mimi comes to Marcello to complain that Rodolfo has been acting jealous and accusing her of flirting with every man who comes along. It turns out that Rodolfo has recognized that Mimi is dying of galloping consumption and, in a display of true artistic temperament has managed to make it all about himself by covering up his fears with his inappropriate, boorish, behaviour. In the final act, Musetta finds Mimi and brings her back to Rodolfo, just before she succumbs to the tuberculosis and closes the opera with her death.
In the words of that most distinguished of music and theatre critics, Bugs Bunny, what did you expect, a happy ending?
If the characters and plot are weak, the same cannot be said of Puccini’s musical score. The music is both beautiful and enchanting. For those who are only familiar with opera music through the recordings of singers like Pavarotti, some of it will be easily recognizable. Rodolfo was Pavarotti’s first major role and while later in his career, his signature aria was “Nessun Dorma” from Turnandot (also by Puccini and the Manitoba Opera’s spring selection for next season), “Che gelida manina”, the aria in which Rodolfo introduces himself to Mimi, was also an indispensable part of his repertoire.
Excellent as Puccini’s musical score is, however, is it sufficient in itself to explain the appeal of the opera despite the weakness of story and characters? If it were Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte we were discussing, in which a breathtakingly beautiful score is able to transform one of the most vapid stories that ever wasted ink into a great work of art there would be no question, but then Mozart’s music was on a level few other composers could ever dream of approaching.
Perhaps the only explanation is to say that it is the magic of opera. The Greeks, Nietzsche told us in his first and best book, by imposing the Apollonian order of dialogue and plot upon the chthonic, Dionysian, music of the Greek chorus had created a new art form, tragedy, which was able to speak order into chaos and lift men out the meaninglessness of their lives. Tragedy had been lost, Nietzsche claimed, due to the New Tragedy of Euripides, the Comedy of Aeschylus, and the philosophy of Socrates, but had been reborn in his own day in the operas of Richard Wagner. Granted, Wagnerian opera is radically different from those of Puccini or, for that matter, of virtually any other composer, and Nietzsche repudiated his own thesis when Wagner composed Parsifal based upon Christian legend rather than Nordic myth, but I think there is something to be said for the idea that in opera the combination of drama and music produces something that is greater than its components. There are other genres in which the two are combined but none of these has ever been able to do what opera does. In words from a very popular work in one of those other genres, words that were clearly intended to satirize opera but which nevertheless manage to convey a sense of the true uniqueness of opera, “you’d never get away with all this in a play, but if its loudly sung and in a foreign tongue it’s just the sort of score the audiences adore, in fact the perfect opera.” (1)
Whatever the case, I have renewed my subscription for next season. I strongly considered not bothering with it when I saw, to my disgust, that the fall production of Beethoven’s Fidelio was being deliberately timed to coincide with the opening of the Canadian Museum of Human Rights. I decided however that it would be silly to punish myself for the local opera company’s decision to make some banal, left-wing, political statement, especially when the composer’s politics were no better.
People fortunate enough to live in a community that has a local opera company, after all, ought to support it. A small company like Manitoba Opera may not be able to put on productions on the same scale as a large company like the Met in New York City but it is unfair to expect them to be able to do so. An opera is different when experienced in live production than when listened to on the radio or in recording. Operas are written to be performed live and there is something to be said for that experience, even when conducted on a smaller scale. To understand and appreciate this distinction is part of the cultivated taste which the fine arts are supposed to instil in people and so in a sense to lack this understanding and appreciation is to miss the whole point altogether.
In the case of Manitoba Opera, our local company puts on excellent productions and last night’s was no exception. I look forward to seeing what they will do with Beethoven’s only opera in the fall, even if I have to hold my nose against the stench of association with the CMHR the whole time.
(1) “Prima Donna” from The Phantom of the Opera, (1986), music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe.
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