This was my first opera experience and I was in tears at the end. La Bohème is dubbed “the world’s most romantic opera” and rightfully so. It has the right amount of drama,humour and of course love to keep you intrigued throughout all four acts.
The scene is Paris, around 1830 and tells the story of four friends, Marcello (Solly Motaung), Rodolfo (Phenye Modiane), Colline (Vuyani Mlinde) and Schaunard (Chuma Sijeqa) who we get to know in act 1.
This plays off in their attic or garret.
Marcello is painting while Rodolfo gazes out of the window. They complain of the cold and in order to keep warm, they burn the manuscript of Rodolfo’s drama. Colline, the philosopher, enters shivering and disgruntled. Schaunard, the musician of the group, arrives with food, wine and cigars. He explains the source of his riches: a job with an eccentric English gentleman, who ordered him to play his violin to a parrot until it died. Schaunard tells them they must save the food for the days ahead: tonight they will all celebrate his good fortune by dining at Cafe Momus, and he will pay. The friends are interrupted by Benoît, the landlord, who arrives to collect the rent. They flatter him and ply him with wine. In his drunkenness, he begins to boast of his amorous adventures, but when he also reveals that he is married, they thrust him from the room—without the rent payment—in comic moral indignation. The rent money is divided for their evening out in the Quartier Latin.
Marcello, Schaunard and Colline go out, but Rodolfo remains alone for a moment in order to finish an article he is writing, promising to join them soon. There is a knock on the door and it is a girl who lives in another room in the building. Her candle has blown out, and she has no matches; she asks Rodolfo to light it. She is briefly overcome with faintness, and Rodolfo helps her to a chair and offers her a glass of wine. As she turns to leave, she realizes that she has lost her key. Her candle goes out in the draught and Rodolfo’s candle goes out too; the pair stumble in the dark. Rodolfo, eager to spend time with the girl, to whom he is already attracted, finds the key and pockets it, feigning innocence. He takes her cold hand and tells her of his life as a poet, then asks her to tell him more about her life. The girl says her name is Mimì and describes her life as an embroiderer. Impatiently, the waiting friends call Rodolfo. Rodolfo suggests remaining at home with Mimì, but she decides to accompany him to the Cafe Momus. As they leave, they sing of their newfound love.
A great crowd, including children, has gathered with street sellers announcing their wares. The friends arrive; Rodolfo buys Mimì a bonnet from a vendor, while Colline buys a coat and Schaunard a horn. Parisians gossip with friends and bargain with the vendors; the children of the streets clamor to see the wares of Parpignol, the toy seller. The friends enter the Cafe Momus.
As the men and Mimì dine at the cafe, Musetta, formerly Marcello’s sweetheart, arrives with her rich (and elderly) government minister admirer, Alcindoro, whom she is tormenting. It is clear she has tired of him. To the delight of the Parisians and the embarrassment of her patron, she sings a risqué song, hoping to reclaim Marcello’s attention. The ploy works; at the same time, Mimì recognizes that Musetta truly loves Marcello. To be rid of Alcindoro for a bit, Musetta pretends to be suffering from a tight shoe and sends him to the shoemaker to get her shoe mended. Alcindoro leaves, and Musetta and Marcello fall rapturously into each other’s arms.
The friends are presented with their bill. Schaunard’s purse has gone missing and no one else has enough money to pay. The sly Musetta has the entire bill charged to Alcindoro. The sound of a military band is heard, and the friends leave. Alcindoro returns with the repaired shoe seeking Musetta. The waiter hands him the bill and, dumbfounded, Alcindoro sinks into a chair.
Peddlers pass through the barriers and enter the city. Mimì appears, coughing violently. She tries to find Marcello, who is currently living in a little tavern where he paints signs for the innkeeper. She tells him of her hard life with Rodolfo, who abandoned her the night before, and of Rodolfo’s terrible jealousy. Marcello tells her that Rodolfo is asleep inside, and expresses concern about Mimì’s cough. Rodolfo wakes up and comes out looking for Marcello. Mimì hides and overhears Rodolfo first telling Marcello that he left Mimì because of her coquettishness, but finally confessing that his jealousy is a sham: he fears she is slowly being consumed by a deadly illness (most likely tuberculosis, known by the catchall name “consumption” in the nineteenth century). Rodolfo, in his poverty, can do little to help Mimì and hopes that his pretended unkindness will inspire her to seek another, wealthier suitor.
Out of kindness towards Mimì, Marcello tries to silence him, but she has already heard all. Her weeping and coughing reveal her presence, and Rodolfo hurries to her. Musetta’s laughter is heard and Marcello goes to find out what has happened. Mimì tells Rodolfo that she is leaving him, and asks that they separate amicably but their love for one another is too strong for the pair to part. As a compromise, they agree to remain together until the spring, when the world is coming to life again and no one feels truly alone. Meanwhile, Marcello has found Musetta, and the couple quarrel fiercely about Musetta’s flirtatiousness: an antithetical counterpoint to the other pair’s reconciliation.
Marcello and Rodolfo are trying to work, though they are primarily talking about their girlfriends, who have left them and found wealthy lovers. Rodolfo has seen Musetta in a fine carriage and Marcello has seen Mimì dressed like a queen. The men both express their nostalgia. Schaunard and Colline arrive with a very frugal dinner and all parody eating a plentiful banquet, dance together and sing, before Schaunard and Colline engage in a mock duel.
Musetta suddenly appears; Mimì, who took up with a wealthy viscount after leaving Rodolfo in the spring, has left her patron. Musetta found her that day in the street, severely weakened by her illness, and Mimì begged Musetta to bring her to Rodolfo. Mimì, haggard and pale, is assisted onto a bed. Briefly, she feels as though she is recovering. Musetta and Marcello leave to sell Musetta’s earrings in order to buy medicine, and Colline leaves to pawn his overcoat. Schaunard leaves with Colline to give Mimì and Rodolfo some time together. Mimì tells Rodolfo that her love for him is her whole life.
To Mimì’s delight, Rodolfo presents her with the pink bonnet he bought her, which he has kept as a souvenir of their love. They remember past happiness and their first meeting—the candles, the lost key. Suddenly, Mimì is overwhelmed by a coughing fit. The others return, with a gift of a muff to warm Mimì’s hands and some medicine. Mimì gently thanks Rodolfo for the muff, which she believes is a present from him, reassures him that she is better and falls asleep. Musetta prays. Schaunard discovers that Mimì has died. Rodolfo rushes to the bed, calling Mimì’s name in anguish, weeping helplessly as the curtain falls.
La Bohème is composed by Giacomo Puccini, with the libretto written by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa.
Performances of La Bohème will take place on:
Tuesday 18 July at 20:00
Thursday, 20 July at 20:00
Saturday, 22 July at 20:00
Sunday, 23 July at 15:00
Tickets range from R200 – R500 and are available by calling 0861 670 670 or book online at www.webtickets.co.za or www.joburgtheatre.com and in person at the Joburg Theatre box office. Patrons can also book and pay via the Nedbank app and at selected Pick ‘n Pay stores (full list at http://www.webtickets.co.za/pnpoutlets.aspx). For more information, log on to www.gautengopera.org, visit Gauteng Opera’s Facebook page or follow @GautengOpera on Twitter.