October 19, 2015

Balance and contrast in La bohème

The power of La bohème to move us is due in part to the manner in which it compels us to recall the highs and lows of life experienced by young adults. We in the audience may never have lived in a Parisian garrett apartment or burned our own works of art for heat, but the path to adulthood is always a roller-coaster ride of extreme contrasts and Bohème succeeds as no other opera in re-creating it.
La bohème, Metropolitan Opera, 2014 (photo by Bengt Nyman)

Since conflict is the essence of drama and story-telling, any opera will feature opposites: a protagonist will have an antagonist; good will be countered by evil; and so on. In La bohème, however, the device of contrast is taken to an extreme: the opera is a fabric woven with the threads of numerous contrasting elements. For every concept introduced, there is a polar opposite; for every Yin, its Yang. Consider these:
I. Comedy and drama. 
Perhaps the fundamental character of the opera is defined by the highly-organized interplay of comedy and drama in an architectural plan of great balance and symmetry. Here's a little chart of the structural plan of the opera, act by act. Obviously, "C" = Comedy and "D" = Drama:

Notice the symmetry: both Acts 1 and 4 neatly divide into two nearly equal sections; an opening sequence of comedic horseplay among the bohemians turns instantly to more serious drama. In both cases, Mimi is the catalyst for the darkening of mood. Though the finale of Act 1 has its share of "meet-cute" moments (to use a phrase coined by critic Roger Ebert to describe the initial stages of romantic comedies), the tell-tale cough uttered by the seamstress tells us that for all its charm, this affair will end badly. The intervening acts devote themselves to a single affect, with Act 2 exploring comedy and Act 3's bleakness only partially relieved by Marcello and Musetta's cat-fight.
The arrows above point out that the opera forms a mirror image of itself: the first half is "comedy/drama/comedy", while the second half  is "drama/comedy/drama". In short, this formal plan succeeds in producing a true chiaroscuro of moods that add up to a kind of virtual reality opera had rarely attempted before.   
II. Cold and heat. 
The importance of cold is made clear immediately as the action begins at the top of Act 1. Marcello and Rodolfo complain about the lack of heat in their apartment. Within moments, they apply the image of cold to romance as well: Marcello compares the freezing temperature to Musetta's heart while Rodolfo goes on to wax poetic about love being like a furnace. They proceed to solve the problem by igniting Rodolfo's play-in-progress. When Mimi enters, Rodolfo begins his aria "Che gelida manina" by noting how cold her hands are, proposing to warm them in his own. The audience makes the connection that both the literal and metaphorical aspects of "cold" are in play here, as romance heats up along with Mimi's fingers. As for Mimi's ensuing solo, she confides that she exults in spring, when "the sun's first rays are mine!". Act 3 continues the dual meaning of "cold" as falling snow accompanies the end of Mimi and Rodolfo's affair, not to mention the confirmation that her disease is terminal. Act 4 returns the action to the garrett, though the Yin of Act 1's frigid temperatures is now balanced by the Yang of warm weather in an unspecified season, spring or summer. But the image of "cold" now takes on a tragic meaning as the dying Mimi's hands are once again cold, as Rodolfo notes in an ironic and unconscious echo of his aria. Now "cold" no longer means the vagaries of romantic infatuation, but the ending of life.

III. Poverty and wealth. 
The absence or presence of material possessions reveals the arc of the bohemians' journeys from Act 1 through to final curtain. The opening scene confirms their group poverty: the apartment has no heat, nor fuel for heat; Colline is frustrated that the pawn shops are closed for the holiday - he's broke; Schaunard becomes a momentary savior when a paying gig allows him to enter laden with supplies and cash. The episode of the landloard Benoit shows that the roommates are three months behind in their rent, a state of affairs they regard as a joke. In "Che gelida manina", Rodolfo tellingly asserts that he lives in a state of poverta lieta (happy poverty) and that in dreams and castles in the air, he's a millionaire. The action of Act 2 in the Latin Quarter demonstrates why the boys have chronic money problems: whenever they come into a little cash, it goes through their fingers. Schaunard buys a horn, Colline some books, Rodolf a bonnet for Mimi; when the dinner bill arrives, it's for far more than Schaunard's payday. Fortunately, Musetta controls the purse-strings of the wealthy Alcindoro: all is well. Whatever stability Musetta and Marcello achieved in residence at the tavern seen in Act 3, their break-up argument ruins, leading to the painter returning to the miserable garrett in Act 4. When Mimi enters in her last moments, Musetta asks Marcello what they have to offer in the way of something to drink. Marcello mutters "Nothing - only poverty". Musetta, dressed to the nines and adorned with jewelry, gives up a pair of ear-rings to pay for a doctor.

IV. Lies and truth. 
Children lie; adults face unpleasant truths. Sometimes liars lie to others; sometimes, to themselves. Just as La bohème gives equal time to comedy and drama, so we observe lies being told in the context of both comedy and pathos. The roommates cheerfully lie to Benoit, both promising to pay him with Schaunard's cash, and claiming that he must be about their own age. Rodolfo may or may not be lying to Mimi in Act 2 when he tells her of a millionaire uncle who will leave him a fortune some day. And, of course, Musetta's foot doesn't really hurt when she commences screaming prettily in pain to dispatch Alcindoro. But lying is less amusing and shows Rodolfo at his least attractive when, in Act 3, he casually explains why he plans to leave Mimi. First, he claims the affair has become boring; next, he blames his lover, saying Mimi toys with men. Marcello's having none of it, forcing Rodolfo to admit the greater truth that he himself is pathologically jealous. Suddenly, the essential truth spills out: Rodolfo is terrified that Mimi is dying and he can do nothing to stop it. This man-child is facing human mortality for the first time and lacks the maturity to deal with it, preferring to leave Mimi to her own devices. 

V. Vice and virtue.
Mimi and Musetta are likeable characters, but both engage in behaviors still regarded as "not respectable" in 1896, and certainly not in the opera's time setting of 1830's Paris. "Nice" girls landed a husband and became mothers and household managers; they did NOT sing in public and exist on the bankroll of millionaires as does Musetta. For that matter, Mimi herself behaves as a typical "grisette" in her first scene. Grisettes were the working girls of Paris, earning meager wages in shops or, in this case, doing needle-work. To survive, it was necessary for a woman to trade on her sexuality and become available for any young man who might buy her a meal. Mimi does an efficient job of manipulating Rodolfo into a dinner invitation when he clearly would rather stay home and make out; yet she also clearly lets him know that his generosity will be rewarded later. That she eventually falls in love with him doesn't change the reality of her tactics in blowing out that candle and all that follows. For that matter, the beginning of Act 2 shows that she intends to milk Rodolfo for every "quid" she can get from him (bonnet, necklace) before dishing out the inevitable "pro quo" in bed.

And yet, Puccini has no intention of painting either woman as meriting harsh judgement. For all her Act 2 narcissism, Musetta proves to be loyal and capable of sacrifice in the final scene, and Mimi's essential sweetness and longing for true love make her highly sympathetic.

VI. Youth and age. 
The four bohemians and Musetta are vibrantly, robustly, and glowingly young and healthy. Mimi is young. In contrast, Benoit and Alcindoro are old. Really old. Foolishly old. Well, aren't all old people foolish? They don't know anything!! It's fun to toy with them. 

I always maintain that one of the subtleties of opera is the way in which it can suggest point of view, just as a novelist can do. In traditional stagings of Bohème, Benoit is a doddering fossil. I smile at his entrance music, a chain of puny, shuffling triplets played by solo flute. However, I pose this question: how old is Benoit, really? Let's put the average age of the bohemians at 19 or 20. At that age, how do young people define "old"? Anything over 35, right? Right. I sense that we in the audience may be seeing Benoit through the prism of the point of view of Marcello and friends. He may actually be in his sixties... or fifties... or forties!

Look, I haven't nearly exhausted this topic. There are other polar opposites on display in La Bohème. If you're inclined to study the piece, make your own list! And then admire the craftsmanship which wove this intricate spider's web of Yins and Yangs, this complex texture of opposites that pretty much nails a stylized version of real life. Enjoy the roller coaster ride!


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