The Watchers in the Dark

George Fleeton

This is the text of my pre-performance Talk in the National Concert Hall Dublin at Lyric Opera’s production of La Bohème on October 17, 18 and 20, 2015.

Why are Puccini’s best-known works so different from what had preceded them, in 19th century Italian opera, and why has their continued popularity been so robust and unchallenged in the decades since his death?

It has been said that Puccini’s music sounds better than it is, and that his style of composition evolved very little during the 40 years it took him to compose 12 operas.

His harshest critics have frequently accused him of decadence, misogyny and superficial showmanship and, yes, there is little by way of intellectual engagement in any of Puccini’s operas.

But opera is a blood sport, tragic narratives stalk its stage, so it not difficult to counter-argue all that criticism by emphasising Puccini’s passion for high-tension drama, his natural feel for what works on the stage, his consistent facility for writing memorable melodies and his genius for manipulating our emotional responses to his music, the music which became the soundtrack to so many of our lives.

This was his winning formula, the effective means to achieve his ends and that made him the most successful and best known opera composer of his generation, to the mid-1920s and ever since.

His work is in the premier league, with Mozart, Wagner and Verdi and his Butterfly, Tosca and his Bohème can hold their own against anything written by those distinguished forbearers; though what, in a strange way, distinguishes him, from all who   went before him, was that, unlike Verdi or the bel canto composers, Puccini he did not progress steadily and confidently forward through his life as a composer, getting better and better with each opera, as they had done.

Yet as a composer of music for the stage, an educated man who travelled widely, went to the theatre and to the silent cinema, he has always been box office gold.

Puccini gave Italian opera its final great burst of pride, and Italian opera, as it was then and as we know it today, died when Puccini died 91 years ago.

La bohème offers us ecstasy in love and pathos in death – a kind of liebestod – not in the more profound sense of Wagner or indeed Verdi, but in the simplicity and brevity of small things happening before us on the stage and reflected back at us by the melodrama: emotions which we recognise and which are perfectly painted, choreographed and sculpted in music.

La bohème is set in bohemian Paris (in this production the Paris of the 1950s), and the principal characters are light years away from the classical/aristocratic or mythical/historical creatures who so frequently peopled the operas of Puccini’s predecessors.

Our heroine, Mimì, in what is Puccini’s fourth opera, is a simple seamstress, living alone in an attic with a view across the roofs of Paris and in the latter stages of consumption.

Her new friend, Rodolfo, is a self-confessed dreamer, a writer barely scraping a living and burning the texts of his plays to keep warm.

In the first Quadro (or act), he and his companions (Marcello, Colline and Schaunard) live in poverty, hunger and cold – when we meet them, it is Christmas Eve - yet Puccini writes music for them which unapologetically sentimentalises their predicament, and that music is bursting with melodies we can hum in the car on the way home, and with little motifs carried forward from scene to scene in an extended soundscape which, in 1896, was without precedent.

This is equally true, in Quadro 2, with the neo-realism of a bustling crowd and its ambient noises which risk disrupting  the musical coherence of the whole scene,  by which I mean the music of the principals seems to emerge sporadically from the crowd only to be swallowed up by the urgent babble of street vendors, children running about playing and shouting and, to accommodate this style of theatre, Puccini changes the tempi, dynamics and texture of the music and it all hushes while everyone focuses on the arrival of Marcello’s old flame Musetta and her show-stopping  waltz-song.

As Quadro 3 opens, that soundscape changes radically to something more intimate and early-morning-atmospheric as Puccini finally gets into his stride in what he called his opera of ‘small things’, piccole cose, tiny objects delicately sketched, relevant to the narrative, each cleverly attached to  the musical spinal cord of the opera: a smoky stove un camino, a lost key una chiave and a consumptive cough una tosse; a pink bonnet una cuffietta rosa, Musetta’s ear-rings gli orecchini, a muff for Mimi’s still cold hands un manicotto and Colline’s old overcoat the vecchia zimarra.

These small things occupy the spaces between the lyrics and the music, and that is where the essence of the theatrical conceits of this opera and the constant shifts between the mundane and the sentimental reside and so they mark it out as something singular, a prime example of belle époque musical imagination just before changing tastes and impatience to be different in the arts, and the advent of cinema took over for a while and before WW1 changed everything.

Each of this opera’s set piece arias is a musically substantial statement: for example Rodolfo and Mimì sing of themselves, in the first person, as does Musetta later, and all of this in curiously prosaic language underwritten by the colours and textures of the soaring poetry of the music and those now familiar melodies and harmonies which have entranced us ever since, in ways that perhaps only Mozart’s music has ever done.

So as we suspend our disbelief at the plot which unfolds before us and as we begin to succumb to the marijuana of the astonishing melodic richness of the music, we are drawn – some against their better judgement? -  into the shallow lives of the long-suffering Marcello, the initially vampish Musetta, the capricious Rodolfo and the plaintive, fragile, Mimì as their well-defined musical personalities take us over.

And once that emotional engagement is locked into place we can experience a poignancy, a sense of loss, a turning of the earth, where tragedy supplants earlier happiness and we the audience,  the watchers in the dark, are the first to notice that Mimì is more than just resting, she is more  than  calm - è spirata!

The next Lyric Opera production in the National Concert Hall Dublin will be on May 07, 2016: Bel Canto by candlelight, an opera concert celebrating the music of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini - which will have a  second performance later in the Grand Opera House Belfast.