Monday, June 14, 2010

La Bohème at the Grand Canal Theatre, Dublin

The Scottish Opera production of La Bohème, on this week at Dublin’s Grand Canal Theatre, promotes the show as being about people who are young, poor and in love. This isn’t strictly true.

The Bohemians are skint, certainly, but being skint isn’t the same as being poor. It’s not the same at all. Strange though it seems, La Bohème is really about innocence. The joy of it, the loss of it and how much it stinks to grow up.

The Bohemians are young. They are the very personification of youth, with no constraints on their dreams or ambitions. Their music as soon as the curtain opens reflects that – everything is a joke or a chance to crack wise. They’re hungry, certainly, but they know they’re not going to starve. Something turns up. They know they’re behind in the rent, but that can be gotten around by blackguarding the landlord. Everything is possible.

The entrance of Mimì is this hope made flesh. Rodolfo sings beautifully to her, she sings beautifully to him, they duet beautifully together. It’s the natural order. Everything’s coming up roses.

Act II sees the Bohemians in society, dining out at the Café Momus. We also meet Musetta, whose relationship with Marcello exists in both counterpoint and parallel to that of Rodolfo and Mimì. Musetta also gets to sing one of the great arias in the canon, Quando men’ vo. It’s one of the great arias in a opera of great arias, and a great bravura moment for the second soprano.

Act III sees a changed environment. Mimi and Rodolfo have broken up. She thinks its because he’s jealous of her, but finds out it’s actually because he knows she’s dying, and the cold in the flat exacerbates that. For the time left to her, she’s better off with a better off boyfriend, who can look after her properly.

But when they meet again, love conquers all and they pledge to look forward to spring. This pledge occurs simultaneously to Musetta and Marcello having another blazing row, a clever way of demonstrating how everyday life goes on while your own is falling apart. Lots of different things can happen simultaneously in opera. It’s one of the things that make opera great.

Act IV sees us returned to the original Bohemian garret, with Marcello painting and Rodolfo writing. The return of the other two sees the young men indulge in their usual antics, but a grim sense of foreboding pervades things. The bad news breaks when Musetta bursts in, announces that Mimì is on her way, and she’s not a bit well.

Mimì gets one of the great deaths in opera. She quietly reprieves a part of her Act I aria, Sì, Mi chiamano Mimì, but dies in silence, while the rest are distracted by Colline’s return, he having sold his caught to buy medicine. And this is supreme art because death is like that. It does not come attended by comets and portents, bells and cymbals. It is a thief in the night, that you don’t see coming or going.

Marcello’s final “corragio,” “courage” to Rodolfo isn’t just about Rodolfo having courage in the face of Mimì’s death. It’s about having courage to bear up to the fact that life will and does kick you around, and you have to be ready for the blows. If it’s about anything, La Bohème is about growing up, leaving youth behind and accepting that not everything is going to work out. It’s said that Puccini cried when he wrote Mimì’s death scene. If so, it was the only civilised reaction.

An Spailpín is quite looking forward to this Scottish National Opera’s production of La Bohème at the Grand Canal Theatre. The updating of the opera to the art scene of current New York is quite clever – the Bohemians are shapers, fundamentally, and the New York art scene was always thick with that particular breed.

Whether the transfer works or not is the tricky bit, of course, but it’s to be hoped it does. The whole Grand Canal development is one of the few reason for optimism about the city in a future that looks quite bleak, and a regular home for opera in Ireland is something to be hoped for. After all, there’s only so much I'm No a Billy, He’s a Tim that the people can take.