Let yourself be seduced by opera

'La Boheme' is a melodic introduction to the art form that has the power to wring tears from grown men.

April 30, 2000|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

"La Boheme" invariably spells La Big Box Office for opera companies everywhere. The latest evidence: Baltimore Opera Company has responded to strong ticket sales by adding an extra performance for its current presentation of this 104-year-old Puccini favorite.

What is it about "Boheme" that grabs so many people? The music, of course; infectious melodies never stop coming.

Speaking of infection, there's also the plot, revolving around a consumptive seamstress, Mimi; her poet boyfriend, Rodolfo; and their fellow bohemians, all trying to get by on the fringes of 19th century Parisian society.

Seems like those characters never lose their relevance. Bohemians still flourish (remember the IMF protesters?); even tuberculosis, unfortunately, is making a comeback.

Surely among those packed into the Lyric Opera House for last night's sold-out opening performance were some first-timers -- those who came (or were dragged) there because they were told that "Boheme" is a great vehicle for operatic induction or that everyone has to see it at least once. Chances are, there will be other virginal types in attendance as the production continues through May 7.

No question, "Boheme" does provide a perfect introduction to the operatic art form. It takes less time than many movies; the musical style is largely conversational, creating a cinematic fluidity; and the action is basically believable. (All right, maybe not the way Mimi and Rodolfo fall in love at first note, but a little poetic license never hurt anybody.)

One dose of "Boheme" can easily turn newcomers into converts, or at least make them open to more opera exposure. Others, especially those who decide to check out "Boheme" only because of its connection to "Rent" ("Boheme": Mimi dies; "Rent": Mimi lives), may end up disappointed, bored, even annoyed at all the caterwauling. I can certainly empathize with that.

When I was a kid, you couldn't pay me to put up with such blood-curdling sounds. But, once in college, someone persuaded me to complement a blossoming interest in classical music by trying to listen seriously to operatic voices, to appreciate the demanding technique required, the enormous variety of vocal coloring and expressive depth possible.

The sounds on various recordings of arias and duets started to become less and less odd or grating. Then I had to get over my tendency to laugh at the mere idea of grown people wandering around a stage singing at each other and acting out some sort of drama or comedy. I could easily have seconded the notion of composer Ernest Krenek, who said: "I came to the conclusion that perhaps the theater of the absurd did not have to be invented, for opera as such seemed absurd enough."

But, eventually, I felt I had to take the big test -- buying and listening to a complete opera. I decided on "Boheme." From the opening jaunty theme representing the come-what-may bohemians, I was hooked. By the last moments -- Rodolfo's desperate cries of "Mimi!" as he realizes his lover is dead -- I was a basket case. Puccini's music had gone right through the ears and directly to the tear ducts.

It was the same when I finally got to experience "Boheme" in the theater.

Never mind that the matinee performance at the Metropolitan Opera turned out to be rather routine. Richard Tucker, then well past his prime, sang Rodolfo without any discernible effect on my senses for most of that matinee. But once he let loose with those "Mimi's" above the orchestra's wrenching commentary on the death, I was a wreck. Puccini had done it to me again.

To this day, while cynics dismiss "Boheme" as cheaply sentimental, I have lost none of my original affection for the piece, or gratitude for the way it made me want to keep exploring the world of opera.

Expand your horizon

If you're one of those getting your ears wet with "Boheme" this week, it's critical that you do not stop there. You've got to plunge ahead, to experiment with as many different styles of opera as possible. You can always choose later to avoid some of them -- but only after giving each a try.

Above all, you mustn't fear any style, whether ancient or contemporary. They all share the same basic, decipherable language; only the dialect changes. Luckily, there are plenty of opportunities locally to delve into those different varieties.

The Baltimore Opera Company may be wrapping up its season, but the recently founded chamber opera company, Opera Vivente, has a production of Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte" May 18-21 at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Mount Vernon. The change from Puccini's 1896, hyper-romantic sound world to Mozart's 18th century elegance, refinement and modest proportions would be good for you.

Even if you're convinced you could never warm up to Mozart and all those recitatives (the sung dialogue in between the good stuff), force yourself. Colorfully delivered recitatives can be as exciting, in their own way, as soaring arias.

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