I think I’ve seen this opera five times, in Newtown in Sydney before there was a functioning opera house, once in London, twice at the Opera House and once in Kansas City. In that American performance the conductor and director delayed the last gut-wrenching chord for what seemed like forever. Rodolfo finally turned around, and realised what everyone else on stage already knew, that Mimi had died. ‘Mimi!’ he almost screamed, and then the orchestra battered us with the chord. The tears from both my eyes jetted towards the neck of the lady in front. It happens every time I see the opera, though not as powerfully as on that occasion.
There is something incredible about any opera. Real people don’t sing to each other, and they simply don’t gather together on a stage and sing different words about different things, but do it in harmony. They just don’t — except in opera. Opera isn’t for everyone. I know that. But it works for me. Given the right singers, the right story, the right composer, the right sets and the right stagecraft, any decent opera will get me in, even if I know nothing much about it. We saw Korngold’s The Dead City a few years ago, and I was on the edge of my seat throughout. Yet it has only one real aria, ‘Marietta’s lament’, and I can barely pick that out on the piano.
A good opera gets me in. And Puccini is the last great master of the operas that get me in. I love all of his works. Why are they so successful? Part of it is the story. La Bohème is about kids in their late teens and early twenties discovering life, and his genius there is to remind all of us about what it was like when we were that age — the acute suffering and joy of young love, the anguish of having so much to do and no money to do it with, the hopes and dreams of what we might become, and the mixture of confidence and fear with which we face each new challenge.
Puccini once said that his success came from putting ‘great sorrows in little souls.’ There is a lot in that quick assertion. Puccini did not discover verismo — the use in opera of themes and stories about ordinary people living ordinary, often tragic, lives — that was probably Mascagni, with his Cavalleria Rusticana, in 1890. But la Bohème appeared in Turin in 1896, not long afterwards, with an orchestra conducted by the young Arturo Toscanini. Little people, the ordinary folk, feel as intensely as anyone else. Shakespeare put that thought into the mouth of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. Shylock says, about people of his race, not simply ‘the ordinary people’ — but it is the thought that counts —
I am a Jew. Hath
not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die?
Puccini’s great gift was to make us aware that we are all alike in these respects, and he does it with consummate skill as a composer. He picked up from Wagner the notion that the opera had to be ‘musical’ all the way through. No recitatives, no jumps from words to song. We call it ‘through-composed’, the unhelpful English translation of the German durchkomponiert. A better word might be ‘continuous’ — the music goes on in a stream, never returning to the same place. You aren’t really aware, either, that the music that underlies the action is made up of the elements of the arias. In fact, apart from the arias (he loved them, and wrote lots), when you are inside a Puccini opera you are hardly aware of the music anyway. It is doing its job supporting the storyline.
Puccini has come in for a lot of critical flak, the typical attack being that he wrote music that was too easy for the audiences to love, unlike Mozart or Beethoven who wrote ‘elevated’ operas (thought Beethoven thought that Mozart should never have written Cosi fan tutte, on the ground that its subject was immoral). I almost know what such critics have in mind, but think than they are dead wrong. Opera is a difficult medium, and Puccini, above all others, even Mozart, knew how to keep the audience enthralled. Perhaps the most acerbic dismissal came from two composers of real stature. Lord Harewood tells the story of a chat between Dmitri Shostakovitch and Benjamin Britten, that went something like this:
Shostakovich: ‘What do you think of Puccini?’
Britten: ‘I think his operas are dreadful.’
Shostakovich: ‘No, Ben, you are wrong. He wrote marvellous operas but dreadful music!’
Since I greatly admire Shostakovitch, both as a man and as a composer, I am sorry that this was his view. Britten can look after himself. But in my view they are both wrong — or if you don’t like disagreement, there is no arguing about taste. Tosca, Madama Butterfly and la Bohème are in the world’s top ten operas in terms of the frequency of their staging. The reason is straightforward. They tell stories that grip the imagination, and are provided with astonishingly good music that is exactly right for the story. I asked my wife why she liked la Bohème, and she replied that she knew the plot and she knew the music, and she could fall into it again, with fondness for the opera and sadness for the characters. I think many others would say the same.
We saw the recent Australian Opera production in Sydney. Like everything OA does, the performance was excellent from start to finish and in every way. The fact that the Rodolfo was Korean didn’t matter in the least, for his voice, a liquid and sweet tenor, was just right for the part. And if Carlo Montanaro, the conductor, was more restrained in his timing of the last chord, it didn’t matter. My tears came just the same.