After the weather we endured earlier this month, winter may seem like it's no good for anything. But whoever needs something to hope for can look to the world of "La Boheme." There, even when nights are frosty and hands are frozen, love can bloom.
After delaying the start of its season to cut costs, Opera Carolina finally gets into the act this weekend. Maybe it's fitting that Puccini's "Boheme," a love story that starts in midwinter, is the opening of the opera season that starts in midwinter. If Puccini's tale of hungry bohemians and their romances exerts its usual box office appeal, Opera Carolina should enjoy the glow.
Loved since 1896
"Boheme" doesn't necessarily need much explanation. The subject: young people falling in love at first sight. The music: a flood of melody that sweeps up the audience in the romance.
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Audiences warmed to it right from its premiere in 1896. In the past few years, the glow has spread beyond the opera house. Broadway took the story, updated some details, added rock music and came up with "Rent." Movie director Baz Lurhmann not only staged "Boheme" in a Broadway production of its own, he also borrowed an ingredient for his screen hit "Moulin Rouge" - whose hero, like Puccini's Rodolfo, is a struggling young poet in Paris.
Keeping love alive
"I think we've all experienced that moment of eye-to-eye contact with love at the first moment," says Opera Carolina's general director, James Meena.
Of course, in real life as in "Boheme," keeping the romance going - assuming that it starts - is another story.
"The world steps in and teaches our bohemians a lesson," Meena says. "I think that's why the piece is so popular. It's a truthful portrayal of what youth is like."
Written from experience
In "Boheme," Puccini wrote about experiences he knew and felt. Like Rodolfo, whose banter with his fellow bohemians gives the opera's opening its pizazz, Puccini had a band of buddies who loved to have a good time. He could happily sit at the piano and compose while they bantered around him.
Also like Rodolfo, Puccini had a knack for falling in love. Unlike Rodolfo, Puccini got married - and his roving eye made for a stormy relationship with his wife. But insofar as his relationships helped him understand women's outlooks and emotions, maybe his affinity for them helped him create the female characters that audiences find so compelling.
Drama in 4 movements
Puccini is remembered almost exclusively for his operas. His few instrumental pieces includes one vignette that turns up occasionally - "Chrysanthemums," a pensive work for strings - but nothing as elaborate as a full-scale symphony. Yet some of his admirers think "Boheme" is akin to the four-movement symphonies that were the home turf of other greats.
If you look at it this way, Act 1 is the meaty movement that establishes the mood - in this case, youthfulness and romance - and the grand scale. Act 2, set amid Christmas Eve celebrations, is the jovial scherzo. Act 3, where a chill comes over the love affair, has the air of a lyrical, heartfelt slow movement. And Act 4, where romance and reality collide, is the finale and emotional climax.
Music is 'brilliant'
Though audiences are often won over immediately by "Boheme," musicians are sometimes harder to impress. Opera Carolina's Meena remembers first studying "Boheme" in the early 1980s as a budding conductor.
"I hated it," Meena says. "I thought it was trite. I thought it was contrived. I thought the story and libretto were manipulative."
"But as I have grown up with this piece," he explains, "I feel the opposite." He singles out the movement when Mimi and Rodolfo meet - and the transformation within them is mirrored by one in the music.
"The sound of the orchestra changes. The color of the music changes. It foreshadows that everything in Rodolfo's life is going to change," Meena says. "It's brilliant."