18 Sep 2007
PUCCINI: La Bohème
Before the age of computers, CDs. DVDs and Apple i-Phones, there was television.
Before the age of computers, CDs. DVDs and Apple i-Phones, there was television.
Then, unless one subscribed to the latest technological advance, "Cable," one was limited to three commercial, two UHF local channels, and PBS. Archie Bunker was scandalizing society with his antics on All in the Family, and Johnny Carson reigned as the "Golden Boy" of late night TV,1 and in 1976, another first: Live from Lincoln Center. That first year there were four presentations by the New York Philharmonic, two performances by the American Ballet Theater, and three operatic productions by the New York City Opera.2 The benefit from the exposure and the success of the broadcasts could not have gone unnoticed by the Grand Old Dame across the square. Thus, whether planned or by coincidence,3 on March 15, 1977, PBS introduced Live from the Met with a production of Puccinis La Bohème, starring Renata Scotto and the then "darling" of opera, Luciano Pavarotti. The broadcast was an immediate success, gathering an audience of more than four million viewers.4 To date, over one hundred performances have been broadcast "Live from the Met" stage.5 It all seems so long ago, now, but it isnt: thirty years to be exact and a lot of water has gone over the dam.
With a name like Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini, the last of the great musicians bearing his surname, he could not help but succeed. Like his predecessors, Giacomo Puccini left his hometown of Lucca to study music, but unlike them, young Giacomo did not return to the Medieval city and the safety of a Church job; instead, he stayed in Milan to pursue his musical career. Documentation of Puccinis Conservatory years is sketchy, at best, but upon reading his letters to his family and friends, one learns that it had not been easy and his determination to become a composer outweighed the disadvantages.6 In the end, those early years paid off: they gave Puccini first hand knowledge and insight into a lifestyle, which would later bear fruit in La Bohème.7
Puccini appears to have discussed Henry Murgers Scenes de la vie de Bohème8with his librettist, Luigi Illica, prior to 1893, but no official announcement was made and the idea went no further than the discussion stage. This all changed after the premiere of Manon Lescaut in Turin on February 1, 1893.
Returning to Milan, Puccini had a casual encounter with his old friend and fellow composer, Ruggiero Leoncavallo,9 to whom Puccini mentioned that he was working on a new opera based on Murgers work. Surprised, Leoncavallo, who had also led La vie Bohème in Paris between 1882 and 1887, replied that he, too, was working on an opera based on the same story.10 Furthermore, he reminded Puccini that, years before, he had rejected Leoncavallos suggestion of Murgers work for an operatic plot as unsuitable.11 After this unpleasant exchange and accusations, both musicians made public announcements of their intentions to compose an opera based on Murgers stories.
On March 19, 1893, Leoncavallo published his side of the story in Il Secolo. In his defense, the composer said that Victor Maurel could testify that Leoncavallo had spoken to him, when the singer was in Milan for the rehearsals of Falstaff, about writing the role of Schaunard for the famous baritone.12 Leoncavallo also mentions that he had discussed the opera with soprano Elisa (Lison) Frandin in November of 1892-before Puccini claimed to have started his opera.
In a letter to the editor, published in Corriere della Sera on March 21, 1893, Puccini feigned innocence saying that had he known of Leoncavallos intentions, he would have never considered Murgers tragic tale for a libretto; he further states that at this point it was too late for him to be "courteous" to stop with his work on the new opera. Puccini ended the letter with a challenge to Leoncavallo: to continue with his version of the opera, saying that a story could be interpreted with different artistic values and that the public would be the final judge.
As would happen more than once, this rivalry stung Puccinis ego and spurned him to proceed full force ahead with the opera. The friendship between the two composers never recovered from this public confrontation and Puccini, until the end of his life, ridiculed Leoncavallo whenever and wherever he had the opportunity. This conflict with Leoncavallo would be the first, but not the last time Puccini would finesse a work, or attempt to, from another compose or author. The notion that he could take something away from its rightful place-be it a libretto or a woman, as with his wife to be, Elvira13-was an elixir for Puccini.14 It appears that part of the challenge for the composer was in the chase and not in the results. Puccini, at times, would quickly tire of his conquests and casually set them aside, soon to be forgotten.15
The libretto for La Bohème, by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa,16 would be the first in a difficult series of collaborations between the publisher, composer, dramatist, and poet.
Writing to the publisher, Tito Ricordi, the poet Giacosa,17 the least enamored with the tempestuous and demanding composer, complained of the "exhausting pedantry" and the lack of "stimulation and inner warmth" in the libretto. Giacosa acknowledged to Ricordi that a work of art was a labor of love requiring many hours of sacrifice, but the rewards came in those periods of inspiration that prompted any artist to continue. In writing a libretto for Puccini, Giacosa continues, there was nothing to raise the spirit."18
Illica, too, had expressed concern over Puccinis intentions in a letter to the publisher.19 Illica further believed that Puccini was too intoxicated with the success of Manon Lescaut and using it as an excuse to stop working on the new opera. Ricordi, the composers most fervent supporter had some doubts, too, and replied to Illica from Paris, on November 2, 1893, " You know very well how filled with fervor Puccini was, how he absolutely wanted thatsubject, and the subsequent angry exchange of letters with Leoncavallo. And now ... is he shaking in his pants at the first difficulties?" Meanwhile, Puccini complained to Ricordi in a letter written on September 25, 1893, "...how can I set to music such long, drawn-out verses that should at least be condensed or possible even rewritten...?"20
But, back to 1977 and Puccinis La Bohème ....
Live from the Met premiered on Renata Scottos birthday and what should have been a moment of celebration, was anything but. Pavarotti snubbed the soprano by neglecting to appear at the birthday party taking place in the sopranos dressing room.21
Scotto laments in autobiography, "A long time ago I had known this man and worked with him22 We had been friends, but as his career grew in every sense he began to be less a colleague and more an adversary of his first Italian friends.23 For those at home and in the audience on the night of the broadcast, this tidbit of information would have come as a surprise; on stage, the two singers came off as though they were, in fact, in love with each other. Hindsight, and Scottos autobiography, tells us differently and today we can understand why there are some gaps in the stage direction for the two artists playing Puccinis lovers.24
Scottos Metropolitan Opera debut took place on October 13, 1965, playing another Puccini doomed heroine, Cio-Cio-San, in Madama Butterfly. Though a qualified success, the Met management only offered Scotto the same four roles: Lucia (4), Cio-Cio-San (9), Adina in LElisis damore (4), and Violetta in Traviata (3) during her first three seasons with the company.25 Frustrated and disappointed, the soprano turned down any more engagements at the opera house until the Met offered her a wider variety of roles to develop her craft.
Altogether, Scotto sang over 300 performances at the Met by the time she retired 22 years later, on January 17, 1987, in the same role of her debut, Cio-Cio-San, in Madama Butterfly.26
Not one to shy away from a challenge, Scotto sang a variety of roles throughout her career and received an inordinate amount of criticism and unfair comparisons to other singers, but through it all, Scotto was Scotto and no one else. Early in Scottos career she was often compared to Toti dal Monte and many other singers, Mafalda Favero, in particular. By her own admission, this comparison to "the great and underestimated Italian soprano," pleased Scotto. "But I never copied her, ... I copied no one ..."27
It is difficult to speak of Scottos singing apart from her acting. The two are one, and even her detractors will acknowledge her ability to highlight the meaning of every word she sings and the significance of her every gesture. In Act I she is vulnerable, naïve, and seductive and when Rodolfo casually, touches her hand as they are looking for Mimìs key, Scotto is innocence personified: "Ah!" she cries our of surprise and pleasure; the emotions clearly defined in her face. She turns to Rodolfo and speaks silently with her eyes as only a teen-ager in love can speak. Lost in the fantasy of the characters emotions, Scottos face is a mirror for Mimìs soul: she changes from anguish, sorrow, and despair to happiness, joy and abandon as she listens to Rodolfo and imagines the fulfillment of her inner desires.
"Mi chiamano Mimì" gives Scotto ample opportunity to display her craft. This seamstress is hopeful, "Son Tranquilla e lieta...," yet all woman when she asks Rodolfo, "Lei mintende?" As if embarrassed, she turns away and once again becomes the young girl, only to succumb to her need for the man next to her: the deliberate break in the words in "Vivo sola, soletta," giving emphasis to "soletta," as she coyly looks at Rodolfo, then turns away as though retracting the invitation to her inner world. Scottos eyes look into the distance of Mimìs longings ("Ma cuando vien lo sgelo") awakening in her a deeper emotion and unspoken feelings. Once more, she turns from Rodolfo, lost in her own thoughts, "Il primo bacio ... il mrimo sole emio...." Suddenly, realizing she is exposing her innermost secrets, she returns to reality and changes the tone of her singing and the emotion in her face ("Altro di me"). Scottos histrionics are well placed and she conveys the elation, sadness, hope, and happiness of the character. The aria ends with well deserved shouts of "Brava."
Acts III and IV are classic Scotto and belong to no one but the soprano. Mimìs aria with Marcello, "Rodolfo mama ... Un passo, un detto," is emotionally charged with carefully placed breaks in the voice and the use of parlando to give emphasis to her pain. Later in the act with Rodolfo she is resigned in "Donde lieta useì," suplicant in "Se vuoi, se vuoi," as though fearful of the alternative. The sustained piano in "Addio, addio, senza rancor," at the end of the aria, elicits more shouts of "Brava."28 In Act IV, Scotto is haunting and the pallor of her eminent death is always present in her voice. Her Mimì is believable and one, maybe, two singers come to mind who could equal Scottos interpretation.
Overall, Scotto is a winning singing actress. Throughout, Scottos instrument easily soars over the orchestra and imbues her singing with a touch of sensuous abandon. She colors and shades her singing to perfection with subtle nuances and one forgives her those moments when one knows, "she should have done it better." Other singers may have had a more beautiful timbre, others may lay claim to a better technique, and yet others may have sung a more beautiful Mimì, but few have sung a performance as emotionally charged and believable as Scottos seamstress in this DVD.29
Luciano Pavarotti made his professional debut on April 29, 1961, as Rodolfo, in La Bohème and the role remained a favorite throughout the tenors career.30 By the time of this broadcast performance, the Italian tenor had become a Metropolitan Opera favorite, but he had also begun to sing heavier roles and the strain, though minor, show in several passages, specifically in "Che gelida manina" where the tenors high note is less than perfect, albeit sung in the original key. In spite of this and his very limited acting ability,31 few tenors could sing as beautifully as Pavarotti-and that he does in this performance.
Pavarotti was blessed with a clear diction, perfect pitch and an unusual ease for delivering high notes which earned him the title of "King of High Cs." Altogether, Pavarottis association with the Metropolitan Opera spanned 36 years and he sang 383 performances.32
Regardless of whatever differences there may have been between Scotto and Pavarotti, they both sing superbly in this performance.
From the beginning, Puccini was credited with having the "gift of melody, [of being] a master of orchestration and [of having a] rare comprehension of dramatic effect."33 Hard compliments to accept for the shy, modest, and depressive, yet shrewd and driven composer.
It is this gift of melody and orchestration and his comprehension of dramatic effect which saved Bohème from being the total failure it had been predicted by the public and reviewers on opening night, February 1, 1896. Though for many, today, it may be difficult to understand, the negative reports are not without some merit, and Puccini was well aware of the damage the failure of the opera would have on his career: though Catalani was deceased, Leoncavallo and Mascagni could still be a challenge to the title of Verdis successor, which Puccini eagerly sought..34
That night, the audience was polite, but not overly enthusiastic; the applause was warm but not thunderous; and the reviews were spiteful and violent. There was criticism for the second act which appeared to be more operetta than serious opera (Gazzetta del Popolo); Bohèmewas a rushed work which would not leave its mark on the lyric stage (La Stampa); and in general, the music had not depth (Gazzetta di Torino). 35
It has been generally acknowledged by critics and biographers that, along with the high public expectation for the composer of the highly celebrated Manon Lescaut to out-do himself, there was also resentment for all the publicity announcing the new work; in the composers mind, his enemies circulated negative reports about the opera, and the composer wanted a different cast. The libretto must have troubled him, too, for changes had been considered almost to the last minute, and though Puccini liked the conductor, Toscanini was not his first choice. But more than this, Wagner deserves the credit for Bohemès failure: Götterdämmerung had turned musical taste in Turing upside down after its premiere a few weeks before Bohèmes. Wagners opera had shocked Italians into a new musical reality and offered them a new lens through which to view the art form. Compared to Wagner, Puccini must have appeared a novice; the unnecessary antics in his Bohemè: a failed attempt at serious music.
Maralin Niska made her Metropolitan Opera debut on March 17, 1970, as Violetta in Verdis Traviata. Her short stint with the company lasted eight seasons and included 42 performancess, of which, Musetta, was the most performed (26).36 She had a successful career at the New York City Opera but was never able to reach the level of stardom. Niskas voice has at times been called "steely" and "brittle," yet coupled with her (over) acting style she was the perfect foil for Scottos more demure and dramatically correct interpretation. Niskas voice was not beautiful but she had great musical instinct and she was a great interpreter of Janaceks heroine Elina in Vec Makropulos and Strauss deranged teenager, Salome.
It is the fate of Musetta to always be played-overplayed-as though she were the principal character, and Niskas interpretation is no different. This Musetta is loud, mistaking the librettos cue of "impudent" with artificial and vulgar. There is no subtle longing for Marcello, or connection between the words she is singing and the characters inner emotions. Her histrionics are often out of place and her actions exaggerated. Niska makes up for it in Act IV where she displays a real sense of understanding and pity.
Swedish baritone, Ingvar Wixells career with the Metropolitan Opera was two years shorter than Niskas, yet he sang almost twice as many performances leaving one to wonder, why such a short career with the company? In spite of being criticized by some for being too "grainy," Wixell was powerful Rigoletto, in Verdis opera by the same name. Wixell has been called a superb musician and he could easily reach deep into the characters emotions as he does, here, with Marcellos. This was the first time he essayed the role of Marcello at the Metropolitan.37
Paul Plishka made his Metropolitan Opera debut on June 27, 1967 in the role of Bonze in a performance of Puccinis Madama Butterfly at the Bronx Botanical Garden. To date, he has sung over 1500 performances with the company in operas as varied as Aida, Fidelio, Contes dHoffmann, Parsifal, Nozze di Figaro, Lucia, Boris Godunov and many more. Recently, Plishka took on the role of the Sacristan in Puccinis Tosca, and this summer he sang the dual roles of Benoit and Alcindoro in Puccinis Bohème.38 Plishka is well suited for the role of Colline, and his youthful looks fit the part of the philosopher with a penchant for humor. His "Vecchia zimara" is not as emotionally involved as one would prefer, but musically it is well sung.
The Schaunard of Canadian baritone, Allan Monk, is very pleasant considering the limitations of the role. His rendition of "A quanldo le lezioni?" to the end of the scene, when Benoit makes his entrance, is cleverly amusing and well sung.
Monk had a repectable ten year career at the Metropolitan Opera and sang 272 performances from March 27, 1976 to March 15, 189639
Italo Tajo is the quintessential Benoit, giving his character a seldom found life-like quality. This landlord is sympathetic, shy and carries the timidity of his your into his old age without shame or apology. He enjoys being surrounded by his younger tenants who make him feel their equal and comfortable enough to disclose his pecadillos. Tajo sang at the Metropolitan Opera from December 28, 1948 (Don Basilio in Rossinis Babieri di Siviglia) to April 20, 1991 (the Sacristan in Puccinis Tosca), a total of 255 performances.40 Tajo was a well known singer in Europe as well, but in the USA he was better known for singing character roles.
On the other hand, Andrea Velis almost made it a deliberate choice to sing character roles. Starting on October 23, 1961, Velis sang 1693 roles at the Metropolitan Opera, ending on February 24, 1994.41 His Alcindoro is well sung and dignified instead of the standard buffoon caricature of an older, wealthy, man infatuated with a younger woman.
This new production by Pier Luigi Pizzi, and borrowed from the Chicago Lyric Opera, premiered at the Metropolitan Opera four weeks before the television broadcast. At the time it was considered "state of the Art." Looking back at the production, Act I is rather sterile and typical of the 70s pseudo modern ideas: vast, dark and empty spaces dwarfing the characters; a bit too psycho-impressionistic. The scenery in Act II is, in sharp contrast to the previous act, realistic and quite effective in spite of being peopled, as is always the case, with more singers, street vendors, clowns, dancers, children and animals than are necessary, while engaging in unrealistic activities for a cold Paris winter night. The Tollgate Scene (Act III) is superb and succeeds in marrying the conflicting moods and emotions in the libretto.
Live performance can, at times, have their amusing, tense, moments which the public may not necessarily notice. One such moment is the end of the curtain call, after the applause has been acknowledged and the singers customarily engage in the cat-and-mouse game of "Who is going to be last person to leave the stage?"
At the end of the curtain call after Act II, as Scotto started to walk back stage and aware that Niska was posturing, she reached to the singer to walk off stage together. Niska quickly slipped away and pushed Scotto ahead. In a few seconds all the singers were out, again, for a second bow. After acknowledging the applause, Scotto, who had Wixell between her and Niska, dropped Wixells hand and quickly reached for Niskas with a tug, to indicate it was time to go. Scottos not to be misunderstood action took place so quickly, Niska did not realize what was happening to her long after she was led off-stage.
The not so subtle maneuver did not get lost on Niska, or any of the other cast members: Scotto is the star of the show!
Daniel Pardo 2007
1974 RCA Records
Chapters of Opera
Henry Edward Krehbiel
1908 Henry Edward Krehbiel
Henry Holt & Co. New York
Harvard Biographical Dictionary of Music
Edited by Don Michael Randel
1996 President and Fellows at Harvard College
Belknap PressCambirdge, Massachusetts and London England
Metropolitan Opera Annals
William H. Seltsam
1947 H. W. Wilson Company
H. W. Wilson Company
Metropolitan Opera Guild
Metropolitan Opera Archives
Stein and DayNew York
Pietro Mascagni and his Operas
2002 Alan Mallach
Northeastern University PressBoston
1980 Howard Greenfeld
G.P. Putnams SonsNew York
Renata Scotto and Octavio Roca
1984 Octavio Roca and Renata Scotto
Doubleday & Co.
Garden City, New York
1974 George Weidenfeld and Nicholson
G. P. Putnams Sons
1-The Public Broadcasting Service was founded in 1969, it merged with NET, and began broadcasting the following year. Starting with Upstairs Downstairs, and followed with Elizabeth R, Henry VIII,I Claudius, and Nature, PBS quickly set itself apart with a new programming standard in television.
2-Douglas Moore s The Ballad of Baby Doe, April 21, 1976; Rossini s Il Barbiere di Siviglia, November 3, 1976; and Massenet s Manon, October 18, 1977.There was another program that first year, "AndréWatts in Recital," presented aspart of"Great Performers at Lincoln Center."
3- The Met had more than once taken advantage of television, as with the 1948-49 Season Opening night of Otello, the first televised performance from the Metropolitan stage.
5- These broadcasts have long ago ceased to be "live." Today, they are compiled from several taped performances and broadcast as one "live" performance at a later date. Recently, the new management at the Met has begun to broadcast live performances on Sirius radio, as well as movie theater broadcasts in selected cities.
6-More information and details on Puccini s early years in Milan can be garnered from his contemporaries, fellow students and teachers at the Conservatory, and friends letters and biographies.
7-La BohèmeCapriccio Sinfonico LaBohèmeCapriccio
8- Le Corsaire,La vie de Bohème Manon Lescaut
9- Leoncavallo was one of the many who collaborated on the libretto for Manon Lescaut.
10-While the two libretti follow the same characters, Marcello and Musetta s relationship is better defined in Leoncavallo s opera and unlike in Puccini s opera,Marcello is a tenor, and Musetta is a Mezzo-soprano; the role of Rodolfo is asssigned to a Baritone.
11-There is reason to believe that Puccini did take Leoncavallo s idea for Bohème and passed it on to his librettists:in Muger s work, Mimi dies alone in the hospital, whereas in Leoncavallo s libretto, written by himself, she dies in Rodolfo s room-as in the Puccini opera.As the two operas premiered within months of each other, it would not have been possible, nor would it have been logical, for Leoncavallo to alter his libretto to mimic Puccini's.
12- Preparations for Falstaff started in September of 1892 and La Scala became available for general rehearsals on January 3, 1893-five weeks before its premiere on February 9, 1893.
13-Elvira Bontini Gemignani, Puccini s mistress and later his wife, was already married to Puccini s long time friend, Narciso Gemignani, a successful merchant in Lucca, when Puccini started an affair with her.
14-Originally, Tosca was to be set to music by Baron Alberto Franchetti until Puccini connived with Ricordi to take the libretto away from Franchetti. To the benefit of future generations, Puccini did get the libretto and composed what many consider to be his masterpiece.
15-More than once Puccini refused to work on Boheme, to the frustration of all involved.
16- Giacosa and Illica had contributed to the Manon Lescautlibretto after the original draft by Marco Praga and Domenico Oliva was reworked by Ruggero Leoncavallo, Giulio Ricordi, and possibly Puccini, but the libretto for La Bohèmewould be the first in which Illica and Giacosa would work together as a team. Lasting a short eleven years, the Giacosa and Illica team contributed four libretti for Puccini: Manon Lescaut, 1893, La Bohème, 1896, Tosca, 1900, and Madama Butterfly, 1904. The collaboration ended prematurely with Giacosa s unexpected death in 1906.
17-Little known today but for his collaborations with Illica on the libretti for Puccini s operas, Giuseppe Giacosa (1847-1906) was a well known and respected theatrical and literary figure. Originally trained as a lawyer, Giacosa later turned to literature and theater after the success of his one act comedy, Una partita a scacchi. Giacosa s plays were performed by the most famous artists of the day, including Eleonora Duse and Sarah Bernhardt; he lectured at the Milan Conservatory, wrote poetry, and was the editor of the influential literary periodical, La Lettura. Methodical and detailed, Giacosa was not accustomed to Puccini s sudden outbursts or the stress of working with a composer who required constant changes to the libretto. For his patience and physical appearance, Puccini dubbed him "Buddha."
18-Greenfeld, 1980, p.
19-In October of 1893, Illica wrote to Ricordi, "Is Puccini already tired of Bohème? ... I know very well that Puccini is a watch that winds and unwinds easily. But in any kind of watch time passes very quickly and does not turn back and each loss of enthusiasm is a disappointment and further discouragement."
20-Greenfeld, 1980, p. 90
21-"The premiere took place on my birthday, and there was cake in my dressing room and reporters around. My Rodolfo would not accept any of Mimi s cake and did not even come by to wish me a happy birthday ...." Scotto/Roca, 1984, p.161
22- Scotto had sung with Pavarotti in a production of I Lombardi in Rome (November 20, 1969), in which the tenor often came late to rehearsals and made no attempt to conceal his ignorance of the score
23- Scotto/Roca, 1984, p. 161
24-Most glaringly is the lack of physical interaction, between the two singers, leading to "Che gelida manina." in Act I and Pavarotti s lack of interest or eye contact with the soprano in other key moments in the opera.
25- Metropolitan Opera Archives
27-Scotto/Roca, 1984, p. 85
28- Throughout the aria, Scotto does not stop wringing the handkerchief in her hands
29-"My mother worked all day sewing and would hope to keep her hands warm enough in winter to be able to go on using them. One day I would sing of a seamstress like my mother, and I would understand Mimi s sweet desperation and her happiness by remembering Santina the seamstress as she worked and sang." Scotto/Roca, 1984, p. 5
30- Rodolfo was also Pavarotti s debut role at the Metropolitan Opera on November 23, 1968.
31- Pavarotti s acting abilities never went beyond the stereotypical out stretched arms, furrowed brows, open mouth, and wide eyes to denote resignation,anguish, surprise and pleasure
33- London Standard May, 1894
34-The knowledge that, in 1896, Verdi "offered the entire material on King Lear to Pietro Mascagni," must have stung Puccini s ego. Wechsberg, 1974, p. 204
35-Its Metropolitan Opera premiere on December 26, 1900 was equally disappointing: none other than Henry Krehbiel of the Tribune wrote that La Bohèmeis foul in subject, and fulminant and futile in its music.... It is "silly and inconsequential; a "twin sister" of Verdi s Traviata, but not as good.