Puccini's Mimi still Baltimore's most glorious heroine of them all

May 07, 2000|By Joseph R. L. Sterne

GET OUT the hankies. Mimi is back in town.

After an absence of only five years, the most beloved and maudlin of Puccini's heroines is once again packing them in at the Lyric Opera House.

As the curtain falls on the final act, Rodolpho's anguished cry over his dead Mimi brings tears to the eyes of Baltimore opera lovers. It is a scene repeated all over the world because "La Boheme" is far and away the most popular opera in the repertory.

It is easy to explain Boheme's allure. It transports audiences into the naughty, sentimental life of the Latin Quarter in 19th century Paris. Its melodies are as irresistible as the notion of innocent, blighted love. "They call me Mimi ... ," sings our sweet waif by way of introducing herself. "I love all things that have gentle magic, that talk of love, of spring. That talk of dreams and fancies."

In an instant she captures our hearts. Yet, if truth be told, Mimi is a bit of a bore. She is passive, lacking in lilt, a victim of Rodolpho's suspicions and abuse. Until she meets her poet and immediately succumbs to the prospect of a night on the town, she spends her time all alone in a little white room embroidering silk and satin "false flowers."

At least, that's the way she tells it. But with delicious ambiguity, Puccini has her described as a flirt who perhaps, just perhaps, becomes the mistress of a rich viscount after she and Rodolpho split up. Like Violetta, in Verdi's "La Traviata," Mimi suffers from consumption and is prone to fits of coughing.

The audience is tipped off early to the tragedy that will come at the end. Violetta, however, knows her own mind and controls her own life. Mimi does neither, and thus falls short of other Puccini heroines.

Take Floria Tosca, the best of them all. Her lover, Mario Cavaradossi, is an accomplished artist with the courage to resist torture in pursuit of a revolutionary cause. In a dramatic attempt to save him, she stabs the dictator of Rome, the malevolent Scarpia, then flings herself from a castle when her escape plan is thwarted and Cavaradossi is shot.

"Love and music I have lived for, never have harmed a living being," she tells Scarpia after he falsely promises to free Cavaradossi in exchange for her body. "Die, accursed one, perish," she cries with hands reeking with Scarpia's hot blood. What a woman! Fearless, bold, quick thinking, constant in her love. Equally strong though a lot less loveable is Turandot, the "ice princess" of Puccini's last opera.

She is a feminist before her time. Determined to avenge an ancestor who defied in vain "the abhorred tyranny of man," she orders the beheading of a series of nobles who fail to win her hand by answering her riddles. When Calaf (a bit of a cad) comes along and wins the jackpot, Turandot decries the impending loss of her virginity before falling in love with her suitor and being woman enough to admit it.

Then there is Minnie, "The Girl of the Golden West."

She runs a saloon in a mining camp, hardly a place for a lady yet to be kissed. But the miners and cowboys love her like a sister -- all but the lascivious sheriff, Jake Rance, who has more carnal things in mind. Minnie rebuffs Rance and falls for a desperado named Dick Johnson.

It looks like it's all up for Johnson when Rance catches him and prepares an execution. But Minnie cashes in her chits for kindness with her cowboy pals, and together she and her lover ride off into the sunset.

A sadder fate awaits poor Butterfly, Cio-Cio-San. Like Mimi, she is winsome and modest. Also principled. When an American Navy officer named Pinkerton decides to "marry" her, the circumstances are set for Puccini's most touching tragedy. Cut off by her Japanese relatives, left by Pinkerton who is transferred back to the States, Butterfly gives birth to a son and pines away for that "one fine day" when he will return. This he does, with an American wife in tow and a request for custody of his kid.

Cio-Cio-San gets the message and bravely commits hara-kiri. This is a throat-catcher. Of course, there are some Puccini heroines who are far more off-putting than Mimi.

One is Manon Lescaut, whose main characteristic is greed, and another is Giorgetta (of "Il Tabarro"), whose main impulse is lust. Compared with Manon and Giorgetta, Mimi is indeed "an angel come down from heaven," which surely qualifies as her sad epitaph.

Tosca, Turandot, Butterfly, Minnie -- they all have their glorious moments and gorgeous arias on the opera stage. But Mimi gets top ratings and top box office year after year. That's her best answer to niggling spoilsports like this writer.

Joseph R.L. Sterne is a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies and was the Sun's editorial page editor from 1972-1997.

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