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Wednesday, May 7, 2014

'La Bohème'

Florentine Opera brings young love and tragedy to the stage

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Within a 10-year span, Giacomo Puccini composed three of the most popular operas ever written, Madama Butterfly, Tosca and the even more captivating La Bohème.

“People flock to La Bohème—it never loses its appeal,” says William Florescu, general director of Milwaukee’s Florentine Opera. “Madama Butterfly has a tinge of jingoism for some contemporary audiences and Tosca can be long winded. La Bohème is a compact, short opera—it gets to the point. And the characters are so relatable.”

Florescu will direct the Florentine Opera’s production of La Bohème this weekend, capping the company’s 80th anniversary season with a tribute to its Italian roots.

La Bohème struck a loud chord after its debut in 1896 and the echo continues into the present in the form of packed houses for performances and a late-20th-century update, the popular musical Rent. Before Bohème, operas were usually set amidst the intrigues of the aristocracy (or Wagner’s Nordic gods). Puccini turned instead to the bohemian youth of Paris, the Left Bank long before gentrification. The heroine, Mimi, ekes out a living as a seamstress and is afflicted with tuberculosis. The hero, Rodolfo, ekes out a living as a journalist but dreams of poetry and playwriting.

Why has La Bohème’s popularity endured? “Everyone, whether they are artists or not, can harken back to that point in life—the idealism of being young and being in love, and the struggle of living those ideas,” Florescu says.

The gentle sadness of La Bohème’s music captures the early bloom of young love—before the specter of illness and death sets in to change the tone of this romantic opera. The young, impoverished bohemians are full of merriment and pranks in the early scenes, whether tricking the landlord out of his rent or leaving the rakish older gentleman to foot the bill at Café Momus. Puccini’s music sets the melodic profile of each character and establishes the lighthearted tone of act one, which might be described as composed in terms of endearment. The first act concludes with two of opera’s most familiar arias. Taking and commenting on Mimi’s cold hand, Rodolfo sings “Che gelida manina,” while she describes her humble life with “Mi chiamano Mimi.” They are already in love.

The second act introduces Musetta, the flirtatious girlfriend of Rodolfo’s roommate Marcello. Her famous waltz dominates the act, and while she incites Marcello’s jealous bickering, Puccini’s lovely score counterpoints their music with Mimi and Rodolfo’s newfound happiness. Puccini’s music is all of a piece and never flags during the double set of exchanges. He uses the same approach in the poignant third act, the emotional centerpiece of the opera. Mimi is ill with consumption; because of Rodolfo’s jealousy, they will part until spring in a foolish decision so typical of the fragile nature of young love. Puccini’s wonderful musical canopy interweaves their sad adios with an ongoing argument outside the café between Musetta and Marcello.

The final act brings the cast together to give comfort to the dying Mimi, but there is none of the high drama found in Madama Butterfly or Tosca. She departs quietly, almost unnoticeably, leaving Rodolfo to cry out her name.

Florescu was determined to cast his Bohème with “believable singing actors,” including such rising talent as Alyson Cambridge (Mimi), Noah Stewart (Rodolfo), Corey McKern (Marcello) and Katrina Thurman (Musetta). “There will be no overblown operatic gestures,” he promises. Unlike recent Florentine productions that restaged their stories in the 20th or 21st centuries, La Bohème will hold to tradition by unfolding in 19th-century Paris. “It could work just as well in the 1940s or now, but there is no difficulty in people getting it in its original setting,” Florescu explains. “La Bohème is the first opera for many people and it’s great for new people to meet it on its own terms.”

La Bohème will be performed May 9 and 11 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts’ Uihlein Hall, 929 N. Water St. For tickets, call 414-291-5700 ext. 224 or visit florentineopera.org.