More than a century has passed since the first performance Puccini’s “La Boheme” in 1896, yet it remains one of the most widely performed operas in the world. That may be because the opera, a dramatization of the French writer, Henry Murger’s 1849 novel “Scenes of the Bohemian Life” , seems to celebrate a lifestyle that was a construction of the 19th century but is still thriving today. Similarly the box-office success of Baz Luhrmann’s film “Moulin Rouge” (2001), a pastiche extravaganza drawing on the opera, is perhaps an indication of how in the modern era, we still expect our artists to be unable to feed themselves, behave erratically, fall in love unequivocally, and live and die dysfunctionally.
It is no surprise then that “La Boheme” is currently being revived at the New National Theatre Tokyo in a production by director Jun Aguni, after its successful run there in 2003.
As is suggested by the original title of the novel, the opera was written in a “realistic” style, following the then relatively new emergence of verismo (realism) as a movement in French and Italian literature and art. In an indication of the true-to-life approach of the movement, as the opera opens with Marcello (an artist played by Karl-Magnus Fredriksson) and Rodolfo (a poet played by James Valenti) are so cold in their garret that they eventually decide to burn Rodolfo’s new play in order to keep themselves warm.
One by one their artist and philosopher friends enter to watch the “apocalypse” of the play going up in flames. As if the tearing-up of the script itself allows the unexpected to happen, once the friends retire to a cafe, Rodolfo’s neighbor, the seamstress Mimi (played by Adina Nitescu), comes knocking at his door asking for a light for her candle.
In scrabbling for the key she drops, hands meet, and another kind of flame gets ignited to the tune “Che gelida manina (What a cold hand)” followed by Rodolfo’s aria “O soave fanciulla (O beautiful girl).”
There is not much more to the story than that. In the second act Rodolfo introduces Mimi to his artist friends celebrating at the Cafe Momus. The lovers fall out and come together again in the third act, set in the dead of winter at the “Barriere d’Enfer” on the outskirts of Paris, and, in the final act, Mimi, whose cold hand was unfortunately a symptom of tuberculosis, comes to find Rodolfo just as she is on the verge of dying.
So why does the opera still exert such power?
Aguni, who was raised in Puccini’s home country of Italy and is also the son of stage director Yasuhiko Aguni, said in an interview, “It was seeing Zeffirelli’s ‘La Boheme’ in Rome in the early ’90s that brought me back to the stage, after two years of not doing anything after my father’s death.”
Aguni’s skills are perhaps best seen in the second act, which is set at the Cafe Momus and moves seamlessly between moments of intimacy between Rodolfo and Mimi and the bigger canvas of Parisian street life, with a huge chorus of merchants, clowns, shoppers and children.
After Rodolfo and Mimi have sat down, Musetta (sung by Ikumu Mizusima), the capricious ex-lover of Marcello, enters with her new, rich bourgois lover Alcindoro (sung by Masahiko Hare).
She stages this encounter in the cafe in order to get back together with Marcello, with whom she is still in love. Mizusima plays the scene with supreme assurance and sense of timing. After failing to catch Marcello’s attention by breaking plates and shouting, she complains of a broken shoe, while rolling up her skirts for viewing.
At this point the entire stage, chorus and principals alike, crane forward to admire her single stockinged leg and stiletto, before Alcindoro is sent off to buy a new pair.
Moments of massively detailed still stage composition like this characterize this production. “It’s like a movie,” Aguni says, “there may be massive onstage movement [in the second act] but the thing that I want to get across to the public is that, even if it seems like a theatrical machine or device, for every single moment there are many different possible interpretations and ways of seeing.”
The cast of this production has largely remained unchanged from the 2003 production, except for the lead role, played by James Valenti, a 27-year-old tenor who hails from New Jersey, and who is still officially finishing his training at the Academy of Vocal Arts there.
Widely praised by American critics for his liquid tenor voice, his career has already taken off and he comes fresh from having performed the same role for Zeffirelli at the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma. He has also worked with Baz Luhrmann, whose Broadway stage version he rehearsed for, without performing in, last year. In fact Valenti finds, “this is the role that feels most like me,” and his natural intensity and conviction come across in a performance in which every word can be heard.
Appropriately enough for an opera about artists and poets, Puccini and his librettists juxtapose moments of high energy and parade with low-key moments that focus on the details of everyday life. Nowhere is this clearer than in the opening of the third act in which the quiet, empty nocturnal Parisian street is brought to life only by a motif of parallel fifths on the flute and the cries of drinking from the Cafe.
Michiyoshi Inoue, who conducts the Tokyo Philharmonic orchestra, is supremely sensitive to these eerie dramatic pauses and silences that alternate with the scenes of spectacle and bawdiness.
More than anything, though, it is Puccini’s innate sense of restraint in a drama which is otherwise about the unleashing of romantic emotion, that makes this opera still “real” for us today.