Cher Public

You give me fever

mimiFor me, the third act of La Bohème is the most important. Mimì, desperate to understand why her relationship is disintegrating, ventures to the outskirts of Paris to speak with Marcello. She wants to understand why her lover Rodolfo abandons her, turns from her, and accuses her of infidelity. When Rodolfo appears to speak with Marcello, she hides herself, and listens from a short distance. Rodolfo tells his friend that the real reason he wants to leave Mimì is because she’s sick, and he is poor; he doesn’t have the resources he needs to take care of her. He cannot bear to see her suffering, and not help.

As distasteful as it might be to say, it is difficult to live with the sick and suffering. Mortality is ugly—it smells, it makes uncomfortable noises, it takes its time; and then there is the overwhelming sense of dread and helplessness. Fate often only gives one choice: observation. We hold hands with the sick, we watch, and we wait with them.

Our obligation to the dying is a question taken up by writers throughout the history of literature. Sophocles explored it early on with his play Philoctetes. And Tony Kushner investigated it with acute horror in his two-part play Angels in America, as the character Louis abandons his lover Prior, who is dying of AIDS. The moral question of what we owe the infirmed weighs heavily on Louis, who ultimately cannot forgive himself.

How does one abandon someone they love, especially when they are most needed? How do we remain present, despite our lack of agency, the overwhelming aversion to illness and death? For Rodolfo, the problem is too difficult to bear—it is beyond the scope of what he can endure. He returns to Mimì, and they decide to wait until the spring to part, staving off their separation. They choose to wait for sweeter weather

Despite Puccini’s romantic, sweeping music, it’s important to remember that La Bohème is not just about Eros; it also focuses on poverty and sickness. While we admire the artists in the garret, living fully actualized lives day to day, it is significant that their lack of resources is the crux of their tragedy.

Mimì’s illness cannot be successfully treated in her economic condition. She lives as best she can, in poor health, a slowly sinking trajectory toward death. It is only through startling bursts of color and light, attending her experiences of romance, in which she finds any escape from her unbearable situation.

Franco Zeffirelli’s famous 1981 production at the Metropolitan Opera, which plays its last performance this season on January 14, frames these ideas with picture perfect imagery. It feels as if we are looking at a postcard of these events, but not probing the realities of these experiences. Even the drab garret has a touching, romantic feel to it, suggesting adventure and intoxication, but doing little to explore the costs of such a life.

While the set has all the makings of poverty, it doesn’t quite evoke the desperate feelings provoked by destitution (indeed, I’m certain many denizens of Manhattan would love to have so much space.) While Puccini’s music, conducted at this performance with touching sensitivity by Carlo Rizzi, concocts a heady atmosphere, the Met’s production fails to contextualize this romance within the confines of economic marginalization.

In the central role of Mimì, Ailyn Pérez was relaxed and natural, though it would have been nice to see more anxiety rising to the surface. Her beautiful, plush soprano evoked the plaintive, internal qualities of Mimì’s character, though her radiant beauty made it a little difficult to see her as ill.

fabiano michaelAs her lover Rodolfo, Michael Fabiano sang luxuriously through the middle voice, but his top, especially the high C in “Che gelida manina,” revealed a slightly less vibrant sound. However, he admirably committed to the role’s more unrealistic leaps toward ardor, fleshing out a difficult character with charm.

Alessio Arduini was a sexy and virile Marcello, in a quirky sort of way. His baritone has a smooth, consistently rich sound; and much like Pérez, his approach to the character is warm and unaffected.

As Musetta, Susanna Phillips didn’t quite muster the necessary flamboyance, missing the vitality, ebullience, and passion of the role. Her voice has a pleasant vanilla quality, which didn’t quite detract from Musetta’s dramatic sensibilities, but didn’t quite boost them either.

As Colline and Schaunard, Christian Van Horn and Alexey Lavrov rounded out a young and good looking cast with well-produced singing and effective dramatic work. Van Horn was especially noteworthy for his “Vecchia zimarra” in Act IV.

No, money can’t make you happy. It can’t prevent death. But, in the long run, it certainly helps. And while it’s difficult not to romanticize the situations these bohemians find themselves in, we must also remember that the opera is, in the end, a tragedy. As Puccini’s final chords indicate, all does not end well for Mimì. As the curtain falls, one wonders how things might have been different if she possessed more financial resources.

As the New York Times reported yesterday, the United States Senate is taking its first major steps in repealing the Affordable Care Act today, making very real the uncomfortable prospect “that millions of Americans could lose health insurance coverage.” The major themes of illness and poverty that drive the plot of La Bohème are still very much with us.

One wonders at all the lives that might flourish under different circumstances, the Mimìs of this country who live hand to mouth. What is our responsibility to the sick and suffering? With this question in mind, the ending of Bohème might signify as a contemporary cautionary tale, instead of an inevitable tragedy.

Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

  • aulus agerius

    I heard Van Horn as Narbal in Chicago recently and I think he has a marvelous bass voice particularly for a man so slight of form.

  • aulus agerius

    I heard Van Horn as Narbal in Chicago recently and I think he has a marvelous bass voice particularly for a man so slight of form.

  • aulus agerius

    I heard Van Horn as Narbal in Chicago recently and I think he has a marvelous bass voice particularly for a man so slight of form.

  • Rosina Leckermaul

    I went on the 6th and hd a different opinion. I hate the production. The garret is too far upstage and Act III — my favorite act as well--is played behind a scrim. Scrims do have an effect on how we hear voices. La Boheme is an intimate opera and the Met’s production is constantly anti-intimate. There are little quibbles. Given the blocking, how can Rodolfo not see Mimi as he confides in Marcello? Act II becomes a game of find the principals. I know these are common complaints. I thought Fabiano sounded marvelous on the 6th and his top notes really rang out. He sounded great in the front row of the Family Circle. Perez had a warmer voice than I expected. I thought she had the perfect sound for Mimi. Marcello’s voice was too small for the role.

  • chicagoing

    I believe that Ferrucio Furlanetto is also tall and lean which suited his lead role here in Don Quichotte. I was wondering as I watched him, in a production which was running concurrently with Les Troyens, if Mr. Van Horn might be backstage taking notes. I will be interested to see what sort of Escamillo he will be bringing here. Did anyone see his role debut in Toronto?

    • berkeleygirl

      Van Horn is tremendous! I don’t know if you caught Cenerentola last season but, at the performance I saw, only Brownlee got a bigger ovation for his big scene. Here’s a review of that COC Escamillo --

      • chicagoing

        Thanks. I saw the Cenerentola here- twice! Agree that Van Horn is outstanding. I just stumbled upon the fact that he will be giving a recital here during the Carmen run. It takes place on February 25th at Logan Center for the Arts near University of Chicago so thanks to Aulus Agerius for bringing him up.

  • Not looking ill was a complaint Parisians used to make about Kiri Te Kanawa.

  • A very well-written and relevant review. Unfortunately I couldnt get rush tickets for this and am really sick so do not want to do standing room ????. Barbiere last night was a lot of fun! My friends liked it. I disagree with a review I saw from the NYT that said that Javier Camarena is no longer well-suited to the role of Almaviva. He himself I think said his voice has changed and is dropping the role however I thought the role suited him like a glove. There was no strain and he sang the coloratura which as much ease as is possible imho. He sounded very mellifluous and I can’t imagine him singing a heavier role…hope he isn’t precipitating himself.

    Peter Mattei and Pretty Yende were excellent as well and I liked Benini’s conducting. It was lively if a bit subdued in parts. With the exception of Mattei these were smaller sounding voices than I am used to hearing at the Met but they compensated with flexibility and musicality. The house seemed to be full and the cast got a lot of laughs from the audience which was a treat. Have a few videos of the curtain calls but am not sure I can post those here.

    In any case it was an enjoyable evening.

  • Theodore H Gatanis

    a well written review especially for the existing opera fan. Oh how to grow the audience to see the performances with such
    an appreciative guidance.