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WHILE LISTENING to the Metropolitan Opera’s Mary Jo Heath commentate on Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème, I got to thinking about operatic legs. Today an operatic mainstay, this tale of bohemian life in 1840s Paris received at best a lukewarm welcome.
The debut of La Bohème was in Turin on February 1, 1896, with young Arturo Toscanini on the podium. The audience response was subdued. Critics were polarized. What’s more, as Mary Jo told us, in subsequent performances La Bohème was typically part of a double bill. The same soprano would immediately revive from Mimi’s tubercular demise to sing resounding arias from more popular operas of the era.
In 1899, the Royal Opera House in London produced La Bohème. Mimi was sung by Nellie Melba, the toast of Melbourne, Australia. Which reminds me of a Melba story I’ve already recounted, but worth the retelling.
Baritone Robert Merrill shares a (possibly apocryphal) tale that nestles neatly with Mimi’s operatic resuscitations: When Nellie got sufficient applause in her role, she’d rise from the deathbed, signal stagehands to wheel on a piano, at which she’d accompany herself in a rousing Home Sweet Home.
You don’t get opera like that anymore.
On the other hand, you can see variations of the Bohème tale. Despite its underwhelming debut, La Bohème has had great legs.
In 1990, Opera Australia updated the setting from the 1840s to Paris of 1957. Baz Luhrmann, its producer, observed that “1957 was a very, very accurate match for the social and economic realities of Paris in the 1840s.”
The Luhrmann production went to Broadway in 2002. It garnered six Tony nominations and won two, for Best Scenic Design and Best Lighting Design. There was also a special award, the Tony Honor for Excellence in Theatre. The Broadway production of La Bohème had eight performances per week and included triple-casting for Mimi and Rodolfo.
The 1996 musical Rent paid homage to La Bohème, set in New York City’s East Village during the early days of HIV/AIDS. Its music was a rock opera, out of which arose “Seasons of Love,” a song that has come to be associated with AIDS awareness.
Rent won four Tony Awards in 1996: Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Original Score and Best Performance by a Featured Actor (Wilson Jermaine Heredia’s role of Angel Dumott Schunard). The musical, which also won a Pulitzer Prize, had a 12-year run of 5123 performances.
A 2009 British production of La Bohème gave the opera a setting in modern North London’s Kilburn district. Kilburn is known for its betting shops and cheap sublets; it’s also notorious for having the highest rate of tuberculosis in Greater London.
La Bohème was performed in Kilburn’s Cock Tavern Theatre, a tiny theater upstairs from the pub. In innovative staging, audience and cast moved downstairs for Act II which takes place at the Café Momus. Patrons of the pub serve as extras for the scene.
It may seem farfetched from original La Bohème productions. On the other hand, once Mimi’s dead, she stays dead. Great legs, too. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016