`Boheme's' greatest tenors and sopranos

Oprea: The world's premiere singers have reveled in the roles of Mimi and Rodolfo in Puccini's beloved opera. The Baltimore Opera's production begins Saturday at the Lyric.

April 27, 2000|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

They say all the world loves a lover, and that goes double in the world of opera.

Lovers -- which is to say matched sets, not lone individuals -- tend to inspire the most passionate response from opera fans, much more so than villains, comic figures or dashing heroes. Whether it's Aida and Radames (from Verdi's "Aida"), Isolde and Tristan (from Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde"), or Carmen and Don Jose (from Bizet's "Carmen"), listening to these couples exult in and suffer for their love is one of the art's greatest pleasures -- even if there rarely is a "happily ever after."

Of all opera's duos, however, none is more beloved than Mimi and Rodolfo, the star-crossed lovers at the heart of Puccini's "La Boheme."

Some of that affection derives from the fact that "Boheme" is itself dearly loved and frequently performed. The Baltimore Opera Company opens its production of "La Boheme" Saturday at the Lyric Opera House.

Why these two? It isn't as if Mimi and Rodolfo are the sort of characters with whom any listener can identify.

She's a consumptive seamstress, and he's a starving poet -- not exactly Jane and Joe Everyman. Nor are they a particularly steady couple, as they're forever breaking up and reuniting. And, as is almost always the case in opera, their affair ends in tragedy.

But they meet cute, and they sing a pair of gorgeous arias.

"La Boheme" is set in Paris around 1830 and centers on a group of bohemians, struggling artists who hope their talent will one day bring fame and fortune. Much of the action finds the group using its wits to live well on very little. Indeed, poverty is what brings Mimi and Rodolfo together -- she knocks on his door in hopes that he can relight her candle, which has blown out in her drafty apartment next door. (The poor thing can't even afford matches!)

What makes the story so affecting isn't the meagerness of its characters' existence, but the richness of their emotions. Mimi and Rodolfo represent the promise and passion of youth, of a time when love and poetry matter more than a good job or a comfortable dwelling. As we watch them flirt and squabble, we don't worry over the solidity of their relationship; instead, we live vicariously through it, savoring the intensity of their attraction.

Nor does it hurt that both roles provide ample opportunity for the singers to strut their stuff.

For tenors in particular, Rodolfo is a reputation-making role, tuneful and dramatic, and bursting with opportunities to show off those high notes. For instance, after Mimi and Rodolfo meet in Act 1, they each deliver a solo aria, talking about their life and aspirations, then stroll off together, singing a duet that ends with the words "Amor! Amor! Amor!" ("Love! Love! Love!")

As originally written, both voices are pushed to the limit, with the tenor rising to a high F before slipping down to a sweet, harmonizing E as the soprano ascends from A to the C above high C. In vocal terms, that's the equivalent of knocking one out of the park or hitting a 300-yard drive off the tee -- except that the singers are expected to do it, every time out.

But some tenors aren't content with the demands of the score and actually follow the soprano up to that C above C. It may not honor the composer's intentions, but man, is it impressive. Luciano Pavarotti owes much of his early fame to having pulled that stunt in his 1972 recording with Mirella Freni.

Mimi is just as demanding a role, but in a completely different way. Although there are many moments in the score that allow the soprano to show off her range and power, the demands of the drama almost prevent Mimi from becoming a show-off role along the lines of Norma in Bellini's opera by the same name.

It isn't just that Mimi needs to sound young and slightly green; she also has to convince us that she's seriously ill. As such, it can be a bit disconcerting to hear, say, Maria Callas cough theatrically in Act 3 of her 1956 La Scala recording, then raise the rafters a few minutes later. It kind of makes it hard to believe she's wasting away.

Then again, there are plenty of opera buffs who would happily suspend their disbelief to hear a voice of Callas' character go to town on those arias. Perhaps that's why the fans are so eager to debate the merits of the various versions of "La Boheme" available in CD shops. At the moment, there are at least a dozen different recordings in print, offering opera lovers a wide choice of Mimis and Rodolfos.

Which are the best performances? Here are my five favorites for each role, and where they can be found.

Rodolfo

5. Roberto Alagna. Who says all the great tenors are older men? Alagna has two versions of "Boheme" on the market, and his sweet, strong voice shines in both. But it's hard not to prefer the more emotional singing he brings to the production with soprano Leontina Vaduva. (EMI Classics 56120)

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