November 15, 2015

Chef Puccini reduces the Bohème sauce

La Bohème is remarkable not least for its fast pace. There are literally no dead spots in this opera; no soybean meal in the hamburger. That's not always true of masterpieces! I personally love Mozart's Marriage of Figaro more than Bohème, but I will confess that I squirm a little during Barbarina's little solo at the top of Act 4. And I'm grateful that the arias originally assigned to Basilio and Marcellina are virtually always cut.
A nice intense white wine sauce
photo courtesy of Adrian Dreßler

But in La Bohème, even expository dialogue is set to engaging music and every sequence seems essential. So my question: which moment or scene is the best? There are lots of candidates:
  • The back-to-back arias for Rodolfo and Mimi in Act 1, which are (as far as I know) the first time two arias had not so much as a single syllable of dialogue or plot advancement between them;
  • The end of Act 2 beginning with Musetta's "Quando me'n vo", remarkable for the use of a stand-alone aria to advance the narrative flow rather than interrupt it, and the way it expands and grows into a giant ensemble for all principals and chorus; and
  • Mimi's death scene, probably the greatest tear-jerker in opera history.
But I think those are all tied for second place behind the moment I consider not only the greatest moment in La Bohème, but a moment I would nominate to be included in a list of the best-crafted numbers in all of opera.

That would be the quartet in Act 3. This simultaneous break-up of the two romantic couples is about as good as opera composition gets. This is a composer at the height of his considerable powers. Is it the greatest music in opera? Well, no. But I'm talking about the craft of opera-writing, and in its conciseness, clarity of texture, vivid characterization and extra-musical meaning, Puccini's craftsmanship is simply staggering.


Are you into cooking? I confess that most Saturday mornings find me watching a series of cooking shows on public TV. I especially like Jacques Pepin and Vivian Howard, as much for their charm as their recipes. Now, once you start dallying in the world of cooking, you soon pick up a lot of jargon. As an example, what does it mean when a recipe directs one to "reduce the sauce"? Stated simply, this means to boil or simmer a sauce with lots of liquid until most of the liquid has evaporated. What remains in the pan is rendered more concentrated, the flavor greatly intensified.

That's what Puccini accomplished in this quartet.

Look: as I stated in an earlier post, one of the structural premises of this opera is the balanced and symmetrical contrast of comedy and drama. Here's the little chart of Bohème's structure I drew (rather exquisitely, wouldn't you say?) to illustrate the point. (Obviously, C = comedy and D = drama)

Fine. We toggle back and forth between laughs and pathos like flicking a light switch on and off. We grasp that Mimi/Rodolfo are the tragic couple whereas Musetta/Marcello are the (mostly) comic couple. Yin and Yang.

So: see what's happening in the quartet? This entire concept, which took two entire acts to introduce, is now boiled down to one six-minute ensemble in which the pathos and comedy of young love's struggles happen simultaneously.

What's more: there are moments, once Musetta enters in full hissy-fit mode, in which all four characters are speaking at the same time. Because I'm no spring chicken, I recall that in one of Leonard Bernstein's Omnibus television programs from the 1960's in which his subject was opera, he invited four stage actors to act out the Bohème quartet, speaking the lines as if in a stage play. The result was a muddle of too many voices at one time, creating incoherent babble. Then he had vocal artists come on and sing the number. Of course, the musical treatment makes everything crystal clear. Mimi and Rodolfo's nostalgic outpourings serve as a kind of descant to the more conversational cadence of Musetta and Marcello. It's so clear, in fact, that translations are hardly needed. I was a boy of twelve when I first listened to this opera, and without following a libretto I knew intuitively what was going on.

But there's a touch of genius at the climax of this ensemble that I believe escapes 95% of those who know it; even those who know it well. It has to do with the surprising appearance of a particular musical motive at the climax of the quartet.

Puccini's operas are filled with musical motives representing characters, objects or concepts. It's kind of a watered-down version of Wagner's more comprehensive textures built on "leading motives", but still makes for fairly tight construction and economy of means. An example of  a motive representing an object is the short phrase that always appears at any mention of the bonnet Rodolfo buys for Mimi in Act 2:

Several characters have their own individual motivic signatures. Rodolfo's, for example, is the jaunty phrase to which he sings his opening lines.

Mimi's is the legato ascending figure heard in the strings when she steps into the garret; it becomes the opening phrase of "Mi chiamano Mimi".

But, as with Wagner, I believe ideas and concepts are also represented in musical terms. The one I want you to observe is found in the first four notes of the opera. In fact, counting the original motive and its melodic inversion, these four notes are heard six times before the orchestra continues with new material:

These four notes, which I will refer to as "pa-dum-pum-pum" because that's what they sound like, are vigorous and energetic. I believe Puccini means the motive to represent the youthful energy of the four bohemians. "Pa-dum-pum-pum" recurs like punctuation throughout the comic half of Act 1, constantly reminding us of the ebullient (not to mention recklessly irresponsible) nature of the would-be artistes.

"Pa-dum-pum-pum" retreats once Mimi makes her entrance and does is not a factor in Act 2, or the portions of Act 3 featuring Marcello's interaction with Mimi and then Rodolfo. HOWEVER: listen to this recording of the quartet, skipping ahead to the 3:10 mark. Rodolfo and Mimi are waxing poetic about the evening breeze "spreading balm over human suffering"; Musetta is defiantly stating she'll make love to anyone she chooses, and Marcello hurling his own invective. Listen, just before the big climax, to the brass instruments. It's "PA-DUM-PUM-PUM", blaring out like gangbusters.

What does it mean? Puccini is dead, so we can't email him and ask him, so I'll tell you what I think.

I think it's an example of a composer inserting a bit of his own personal commentary on the characters. I think Puccini intends for us to recognize our own youthful selves as we watch the two couples breaking up, one with pathos and the other in a shouting match. Puccini remembers his own romantic misadventures from his own bohemian days. He was always a ladies' man, and did not always treat women in a way he could look back on with pride. He knows, Faithful Readers, that you and I might look back with discomfort, regret and perhaps a bit of shame at our immature, groping, struggling attempts to function as adults in our first romantic relationships.

Like the two couples in Bohème, it's likely we weren't always successful at the "mature grown-up" thing.

Puccini, in choosing the climax of the quartet to re-introduce the "Pa-dum-pum-pum" motive of Youth, is saying directly to every member of his audience: "Look at these four people: They're. So. Young. They have so much to learn about life and love! Do you remember, my friends of the audience? Do you remember when you were that young? I do, and I'll bet you do too."

That's what "Pa-dum-pum-pum" means, both in that climactic moment and the two further repetitions that follow with solo oboe in the bittersweet coda with Mimi and Rodolfo.

And it's great. THIS sauce has lots of flavor - LOTS.

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