La bohème

A visit to the opera.

[originally written 28/07/2015]

This is another post about doing something I’ve been wanting to do, this time it was ‘see an opera’. I’ve seen plays, musicals, concerts but I’d never seen an opera (or a ballet but I’m yet to get round to that) until the other week.
Somehow along the way this year, I signed up to the Royal Opera House Student newsletter without realising it (I think it was via a competition) and every so often they send me an email telling me not to miss out on this or that and promoting the offer of £10 student tickets to performances or cinema showings of performances. They’re normally for modern stuff I’ve never heard of (not that I know a lot of operas) or memorably Guillaume Tell, about which I’d just read a critic say it was the worst received performance he’d ever witnessed at the venue (or something like that). Then I got one advertising a performance of La bohème, which I’d heard of, by Puccini, who is one of the very few writers-of-operas (is there a word for that?) I know of. I was going to be in London when the matinee in question took place so I booked it and then felt very surprised by my own impulsiveness.
The date in question was unfortunately also the date of a Tube [train] strike and so the day ended up involving a lot of walking but that meant I also got to take in many famous sights as I went, in a way you never do when you’re on the Underground.
My seat was way better than I expected, it may have been on the highest level but it was near the front and fairly central – the stage seemed far closer than I’d thought it would do.  The Royal Opera House is gorgeous (even from the cheap seats) with plush red seats, lots of individual lamps lighting it, a huge orchestra pit and very grand curtains! I believe the performance sold out – it was certainly very busy.
La bohème was written by Giacomo Puccini and premiered in 1896. It tells the tale of friends Rodolfo, a poet, Marcello, an artist, Schaunard, a musician and Colline, a philosopher all living a bohemian life in 19th century Paris. Rodolfo falls in love with Mimi, the girl-from-upstairs, drama and heartfelt arias ensue.
I was surprised by how funny the opera was, in amongst the heartbreak, even if I needed the subtitles shown above the stage (a novel experience) to understand what people were saying as my Italian is extremely limited. Memorable moments include the scene where Marcello stubbornly refuses to acknowledge his on-off girlfriend Musetta despite her best efforts to attract his attention as well as when one character accuses another of ‘flashing her ankles’ at other men – the scandal! I was also amused whenever they sung, in the elaborate operatic style, words and phrases so simple they fell within my grasp of the language e.g. “Si” or “poco”.
The description the Royal Opera House gives for the opera’s plot mentions only the love story between Rodolfo and Mimi but I felt that the one between Marcello and Musetta was considered almost as important in the story. While the former is classic, pure, love-at-first-sight etc., the latter is tempestuous, unstable but passionate and, underneath, just as true. I cannot talk about the great love stories portrayed without mentioning the one true love between Colline and his coat – seriously, the guy sings an aria to it, in the middle of the final, dramatic act!
I read beforehand that La bohème was considered a good opera to start with because, among other reasons, it was short. As it had 4 Acts and 2 intervals I was sceptical that opera-short was quite the same thing as normal-short, but it went past really quickly. I think it was as it is nothing but singing and each act consisted of about 2 songs(?) which pulled you in and carried you along until they were over – it is definitely an advantage of the art form.
It ended very abruptly and, as I believe can be expected with operas, badly (for the characters, not artistically). A tear may have been shed.
Though I didn’t know it until later, it turns out the performance I saw was a week before, after 41 years, the final performance of that production of La bohème took place, which Plácido Domingo (one of the famous Three Tenors) would conduct as he played Rodolfo when the production premiered in 1974. It was produced by John Copley and was known for its detailed set designs, which were indeed exquisite.
Though I don’t think I was ‘bitten by the opera bug’, I really enjoyed myself, felt very classy and would go again.