November 1, 2015

Rodolfo: a very verismo boyfriend

Well, I sure didn't see that coming.

Act 3: the break-up quartet
(from The Victrola Book of the Opera)
I'm referring to the unexpected reaction to last week's La Bohème post about Mimi. My typical readership comes to a few hundred per week; this post drew a few thousand. Comments on social media ranged from whole-hearted agreement to the predictable group of those who want me to know that I don't "get it" - that I just don't understand the opera. Between those who approved of my take and those who didn't, my portrait of Mimi as a grisette became the second-most read item ever on this site.

Thanks, those of you who were kind enough to share, re-post and re-tweet. I appreciate it.

Oh, and if your reason for disputing my opinion was that I ignored the beauty of Mimi's music and failed to infer from that beauty that she is innocent, guileless and sweet, here's my response. Puccini's music is intended to compel us to like these characters. The composer had no interest in making Mimi unattractive or unlikeable simply because she is not perfect or saintly. Puccini, remember, literally fell in love with his female characters, Mimi included. His aim was to enable the audience to identify with the bohemians and their women; to empathize with them; to remember that we ourselves were similarly imperfect in our own coming-of-age struggles with romance. So the music is winningly passionate and lovely. Hey - none of those characters are lacking in passion, that much is clear.

SO: if your bowels were in an uproar over my take on Mimi, be prepared for what I believe the opera wants us to know about Rodolfo.

Rodolfo is a typical young man in the way he experiences his first great love affair. (Yes, though the libretto doesn't specify his romantic history, I'm speculating he's new to this kind of infatuation.)

He has no idea what love is! He talks about it, he's besotted with Mimi, he flings the word amore around freely, he believes that what he's experiencing is true love.

It may indeed be love, but (as with many young people) for Rodolfo, "love" is a fairly narcissistic and immature phenomenon. Young people in the throes of infatuation experience the object of their affection as a reflection of themselves. They're fascinated with how the relationship makes they themselves feel. They're prone to describing love in terms of their own sensations:

"My stomach is churning - I can't eat!"

"I can't concentrate!"

"It's like I'm burning up inside!"

"I'm tingling all over!"

Or, as Oscar Hammerstein II put it,
"I know how it feels to have wings on your heels, and to fly down the street in a trance."

That's all great! We should all get to feel that way at least once in life! But love? Real love is when you are equally concerned with how your partner feels; their wants and needs. Rodolfo, as the opera progresses, is mainly concerned with his own pleasure or lack of pleasure.

Notice how, from the outset, Rodolfo treats Mimi and how he expresses himself to her. After the great lyrical outburst of "O soave fanciulla", there is this exchange:

RODOLFO: Give me your arm, my little one.
MIMI: I obey, sir.
RODOLFO: Tell me you love me.
MIMI: I love you.

"Tell me you love me". Yes, because my male vanity wants to know I've successfully conquered the fair maid. Heaven forbid that I, the man, say those words to you.

In Act 2, which takes place perhaps thirty minutes later at most, Rodolfo is already sounding like a jealous idiot and exhibiting possessiveness. "Were you looking at him?" "A happy man is always a little jealous". And later, as Musetta creates an uproar flirting with Marcello, Rodolfo earnestly tells his new girlfriend, "If you were to behave like that, I'd never forgive you."

Oh, Rodolfo, what're you doing? You haven't even slept with her yet! Slow down, buddy!

And when he introduces Mimi to his friends, note that it's all about his self-image. "I am the poet, and she is the poetry." Could he be any more obvious about regarding his girlfriend as a reflection of himself? It's classic, actually.

It gets less attractive in Act 3. Rodolfo is hanging out with Marcello and Musetta in the warmth and comfort of the tavern, leaving Mimi to stomp alone through the cold and snow to find the painter and confide her desperate situation to him. Rodolfo, we learn, is acting like a jerk. The seeds of jealousy we observed in Act 2 have sprouted into a stinky weed of pathological dysfunction. He's angry and suspicious. Actually, he's abusive. If I behaved like that, my friends would hold and intervention -- which is sort of what Marcello does once Mimi conceals herself behind some trees to overhear their conversation.

When Rodolfo first emerges from the tavern to announce that he wants to leave Mimi, his music is deceptively bouncy and cavalier. He certainly doesn't sound angst-ridden. This is a subtle choice by Puccini, as it will become clear that Rodolfo is lying to himself as well as to Marcello. His lame excuses (the affair has become boring; Mimi is a flirt) are preceded with the phrase "I love Mimi, but......" etc. etc. NOTE: this is the only time in the opera he ever specifically says "I love Mimi"; he never says "I love you" to her face.

But when the truth finally emerges outside the tavern, Rodolfo's honesty does him little credit. The music turns serious and earnestly dramatic when the poet confesses that he's terrified by his lover's deteriorating health. He's very concerned that she is dying and, what's worse, the cold weather combined with his unheated apartment is aggravating her condition. For her own sake, they should part.

REALLY? "I love my girlfriend, but she's dying and my home is bad for her, so we should break up."


How about you do whatever it takes to GET HER TO A DOCTOR? How about THAT, lover?! How about you stop hanging out in the tavern and shovel coal or muck out barns or rob a bank or DO SOMETHING??

Rodolfo is no Des Grieux, the male lead in Puccini's previous work Manon Lescaut. Manon left the poor student Des Grieux, becoming Geronte's kept woman. Geronte eventually had her arrested on prostitution charges, leading to her being tried, convicted, and deported with a band of scuzzy whores to America.

And Des Grieux? He showed up at the dock, begging to join Manon in spite of dire warnings from the ship's captain. In the opera's final scene, they're wandering in a wilderness together without food and water.

Now that's love. That's the real deal. Atta boy, Des Grieux!

Rodolfo: observe and learn.

I would also caution you Faithful Readers not to over-romanticize Rodolfo's behavior in Act 4. Months later, as the scene begins, we learn via dialogue that the poet has not seen Mimi in some time; she's taken up with a wealthy Viscount. In his suavely melodic duet with Marcello, Rodolfo's tone is not that of a man in love; he's not tearing out his hair that he's lost the love of his life; he's not desperately searching Paris for her so he can beg her to take him back. Nope: they've broken up. His tone is nostalgically wistful, nothing more. And in this duet, he's not remembering how good she was; how his mis-judged her; her kindness or sweetness. Nope: he's remember how she looked. Her tiny hands, the way her hair smelled, her white neck. He's still objectifying her.

Of course, when Mimi arrives in the agony of her final minutes, Rodolfo feels terrible. He's not a monster; he's not a bad person, he's not stupid; Mimi was his lover and she's dying and he's aware of the tragedy taking place.

I believe he's experiencing an epiphany: the scope and extent of his mis-treatment and poor behavior is finally dawning on him. He's feeling guilty.

HOWEVER: note their interaction once the other bohemians have left and Mimi pours out her death-bed confession of love. As I pointed out last week, the reality of facing the end of her life has forced Mimi (as it forces all those facing terminal illness too young) of what really matters in life. She wants Rodolfo to know what she's figured out: that he was the great love of her life.

Rodolfo's response is telling. This is a moment when he could have responded. "Baby, I love you! I love you more than anything in the world, and I'm so sorry for the way I treated you! I love you with all my heart!"

He doesn't say that.

He says "Ah, Mimi; mia bella Mimi!" (Ah, Mimi, my beautiful Mimi.)

He doesn't - perhaps can't - say the "L word".

Okay, Readers! If you've made it this far and didn't get mad at me for being hard on your favorite tenor eight paragraphs ago, let me be clear.

Rodolfo isn't a bad person. He's not hard-hearted or mean or despicable.

He's YOUNG. He hasn't figured out grown-up stuff yet. He doesn't know what "true love" is.

"But Glenn! How can you listen to that magnificent love music and doubt that he loves her? That music PROVES that he loves her! Just listen to the music!!!"

I have. Over and over, for a half-century now. Listen to me, opera-lovers: the music proves that he believes that he loves her. The music adopts the point of view of "first person", as it were, inducing us to see Rodolfo as he sees himself: a man in love. But it's not a mature love. It's not Radames and Aida, or Leonora and Manrico, Or Beethoven's Leonora and Florestan. This is verismo opera, not fairy-tale opera. No knights in shining armor here, willing to die for his maiden fair.

How mature were YOU at age eighteen? Or twenty? Or however old these bohemians are supposed to be? Were you the perfect, mature partner in your first romantic relationship? Didn't you have a lot to learn? We're not meant to dislike Rodolfo. We're meant to recall the unwise moments of our own youthful experiences. The music allows us to do so.

The tragedy of La Bohème is that if Rodolfo does figure things out and learn from his mistakes and become less narcissistic about romance, it will be too late for Mimi. He will always look back on their affair with regret.

Personally, I wonder if his future relationships will be more functional. Pathological jealousy is not such an easy personality trait to control.

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