Puccini was back with devastating force at Covent Garden last night, and oh how I've missed him! La bohème is the first Puccini we've had since the brilliant Il trittico opened the 2011/12 season back in September last year. Last nights performance, my first for this opera, was simply wonderful. It was touching, at times funny and ultimately heartbreakingly sad, all set against the backdrop of John Copley's 19th Century Paris. It was also an unusual night as the final of BBC 2's Maestro at the Opera was being filmed. Act II was repeated with the winner conducting. We were asked by Tony Hall, Chief Executive of the Royal Opera House, to keep the winner a total secret as the show is not set to be broadcast for a number of weeks yet. So i'll do as instructed, and simply say that the winning Maestro did a very worthy job! I was also introducing my Mum to her very first opera last night. I think she liked it. She cried after Act I and said she was blown away by it all at the end! Good feedback indeed!
So what is that's cemented La bohème up there with Tosca and La traviata as one of my favourite operas? To begin with it had a head start. Puccini gets me every time with the drama and passion of his operas and the stunning music that accompanies them. I'm yet to see any Puccini that's not left me feeling shaken and stirred by the end of the evening. La bohème's story is also an engaging and relevant one that I think can speak to everyone on some level, whether about love, loss, friendship, heartbreak or poverty. It's the tale of a group of 'bohemians' living in Paris in the 19th Century, and more specifically about the love and ultimate tragedy between the two central characters Rodolfo and Mimi. One of the most touching scenes i've seen in opera to date is the moment when the two first meet, on a bitterly cold Christmas Eve in a Paris attic, their hands touch in search for a lost key, Rodolfo exclaims 'What a frozen little hand, let me warm it for you', and so begins one of opera's greatest loves! You can't convey the emotion of this scene in writing, you need to see it, to hear it, to experience it, but it's truly brilliant drama.
I'm sure I don't really need to say that everything in La bohème ultimately ends in tragedy. After an initial good start, love gets put to the test and Rodolfo's jealousy ultimately results in the two parting ways. Mimi is dieing from TB. They are reunited, there love as strong as ever, in Mimi's final hours. She searches out Rodolfo to be with him as she dies in the same Paris attic where they first met. The death scene is tragic. As Mimi's medicine is mixed by her friends, the fellow bohemians, Rodolfo paces the attic refusing to give up hope. She quietly dies in the background. All are heartbroken, Rodolofo is devastated, the music rises for just a moment as Rodolfo cries 'Mimi!, Mimi!', horns sound, there is a gentle drum role and then all fades softly to eventual quietness. It's said that the great man himself, Puccini, cried as he wrote this final scene and there was surely not a dry eye in the house last night as the curtains dropped. It was just simply stunning and incredibly moving. Opera at his very best.
Seat: J72, Amphitheater, £37 *** (not bad, but you can get slightly more central views for the same price)
Synopsis: La boheme
'Maestro at the Opera' continues on BBC 2, Friday, 11th May, 9pm. The final, which features Act II of La boheme being conducted at the ROH by the winner, will be aired on Friday, 18th May.
NEXT OPERA: Falstaff, 30th May