How feigned Mimi’s innocence really is must be a matter of interpretation. In both the productions I saw she was seen waiting for the friends to leave so she could see Rodolfo on her own – though I’m not sure this was Puccini’s intention. The speed of the romance is rather theatrical but then they are both artists (Mimi is also creative) who live life as though it were a performance.
A joyful second act in the Latin Quarter café offers the chance for spectacular staging. Both productions I saw, at Glyndebourne and WNO, took advantage though WNO was more imaginative. (I didn’t get the man in the monkey costume though.) For me, though, the third act is the most moving. It’s now winter and Rodolfo and Mimi are having problems: he is jealous and worried that she has tuberculosis; she feels neglected. They know they must part but cannot manage bear it so they agree to stay together until the spring.
The music repeats some of the same themes from the first half but in darker tones. Neither character gives a truly convincing reason for breaking up; I suspect they find getting together with someone more thrilling than being with them. The final act completes the tragedy – this time Rodolfo can’t warm Mimi’s cold hand.
Of all the composers whose operas I’ve seen so far, Puccini is the one who has never disappointed. Writing about in the cold light of day La bohème seems sentimental and over the top. But while you’re listening the opera breathes romantic memories. The ravishing music allied to a tight construction (four acts, two hours) means it never turns maudlin. It might not have depth but it does have weight. The music allows us to fill in the gaps with our own lost dreams.
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The Bohemians all head out to the Cafe Momus for drinking and fun. One problem: no one has the money to pay the bill. Michael Poehn/Wiener Staatsoper hide caption
The Bohemians all head out to the Cafe Momus for drinking and fun. One problem: no one has the money to pay the bill.Michael Poehn/Wiener Staatsoper
The opera's familiar story is set in the Latin Quarter of Paris. As Act One begins, two struggling young artists, the poet Rodolfo and a painter, Marcello, are working in their shabby, unheated apartment. They're joined by their fellow bohemians, Colline and Schaunard, a philosopher and a musician. Their landlord demands rent, but they put him off and everyone decides to go out drinking — except for Rodolfo. He'll stay home to finish his work.
When Rodolfo is alone, there's a knock at the door. It's Mimi, a young seamstress who's looking for candle. Rodolfo invites her in, and they get to know each other through two very famous arias. Rodolfo introduces himself, and his dreams, in the aria "Your little hand is cold" — "Che gelida manina." Her introduction is the aria, "Mi chiamano Mimi" — "My name is Mimi." The situation is ripe for romance, and the two are quickly drawn to each other. But soon there are shouts from the street, and they go off to join Rodolfo's friends.
In Act Two, Rodolfo and Mimi join the others at a busy Cafe. We also meet Marcello's off-and-on girlfriend, Musetta. Tonight, she has a wealthy escort named Alcindoro. Still, her lively aria is clearly meant to get Marcello's attention. When Marcello responds, Musetta makes a scene, driving Alcindoro away. But when the bill comes, no one has the money to pay it. So the bohemians take off. When Alcindoro returns, looking for Musetta, he gets stuck with the tab.
Act Three takes place outside a tavern, a roadhouse on the outskirts of Paris, during the wee hours of the morning. It's dark, and snowing.
Mimi appears. She's pale, and stricken by a terrible, wracking cough. When Marcello comes out of the tavern, Mimi tearfully tells him that Rodolfo's jealousy is making their relationship unbearable. When Rodolfo emerges, Mimi hides in the shadows. She listens while Rodolfo explains to Marcello that he does have fits of jealousy — but they're really phony. He only does it to get away from Mimi, when he can't bear her obvious illness and suffering.
Mimi's coughing gives away her hiding place, and Marcello goes back into the tavern to be with Musetta, leaving Rodolfo and Mimi alone. They reluctantly agree to separate. But when Marcello and Musetta come out of the tavern noisily, their quarrel moves Mimi and Rodolfo to stay together. The quartet that ends the act reveals two intense, but very different relationships.
Roldolfo (Stephen Collins, left), Colline (Sorin Coliban, center) and Marcello (Boaz Daniel, right) try to keep warm in a shabby apartment with no heat. Michael Poehn/Wiener Staatsoper hide caption
Roldolfo (Stephen Collins, left), Colline (Sorin Coliban, center) and Marcello (Boaz Daniel, right) try to keep warm in a shabby apartment with no heat.Michael Poehn/Wiener Staatsoper
Act Four takes place in the cold, ill-kept apartment where the opera began. Rodolfo and Marcello are working, but their minds are on their lovers. Colline and Schaunard return with some food, and the scene turns jolly.
The mood changes quickly when Musetta arrives with Mimi, who is plainly dying. Her friends try to scrape some money together to get help. Musetta takes off her earrings and gives them to Marcello, to sell for medicine and a doctor. Colline decides to part with his favorite overcoat, bidding it farewell in one of the opera's most moving arias.
When Rodolfo and Mimi are left alone, they tenderly recall their first meeting — in this same apartment. The others return, and they all try to make Mimi more comfortable. But she grows quiet, and dies, leaving Rodolfo despondent at her side.
Stephen Costello …………. Rodolfo
Krassimira Stoyanova ………. Mimi
Boaz Daniel ……………… Marcello
Alexandra Reinprecht …… Musetta
Adam Plachetka ....…… Schaunard
Sorin Coliban ……………… Colline
Alfred Sramek ...… Benoit/Alcindoro
Vienna State Opera Orchestra and Chorus
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor