Friday, March 25, 2016
West Edge Bohemia
West Edge Opera presented a concert version of the other operatic version of La Bohème by Leoncavallo on Sunday at Mills College in a wonderful, strongly sung performance. Pictured above, left to right, are Ryan Bradford as Colline, Sally Mouzon as Phemie, Buffy Baggott as Musette, Michael Orlinksky as Schaunard, Alex Boyer as Marcel, Anders Froelich as Roldolphe, and Carrie Hennessey as Mimi. Not pictured but essential was Musical Director Jonathan Khuner on piano, who gave a virtuoso performance of the complex musical reduction while conducting a large vocal ensemble.
Leoncavallo was a librettist as well as a composer, and was great friends with Puccini for whom he wrote the libretto for Manon Lescaut. Leoncavallo proposed collaborating on an adaptation of the 1849 play by Henry Murger (above) and Théodore Barrière about starving artists and their girlfriends in Paris' Latin Quarter during the 1840s, which in turn was based on a series of touching, humorous, autobiographical stories by Murger published in various Parisian newspapers. Puccini professed to be uninterested but changed his mind and wrote his own opera with different librettists, basing it on the later 1851 collection of stories called Scènes de la vie de bohème which was published after the smashing success of the play.
Leoncavallo was furious and went ahead with his own opera while publicly calling out Puccini for his bad behavior. Puccini denied the story in a letter to an Italian newspaper in 1893, and concluded, "Let him compose, and I will compose. The public will judge." And judge they did, with Puccini's 1896 tuneful, sentimental opera becoming an overproduced repertory staple while Leoncavallo's 1897 opera slipped into obscurity. Based on the West Edge Opera performance, I actually prefer the Leoncavallo. Its libretto is more coherent, the humor is genuinely funny, and the characters have a harder, more realistic edge. The Bohemians are also more fleshed out than in the Puccini opera, especially the composer Schaunard, given a sly, funny performance by Michael Orklinksky above.
I tried to find an English translation of the novel at the SF Public Library, which did not exist, but did stumble across a delightful 1946 biography of Henry Murger, a Parisian janitor's son who had dreams of becoming a poet. That didn't work out so well financially, so his friends encouraged him to write prose, and he finally found a measure of success with journalistic vignettes based on real incidents from the lives of his friends. In their early 20s, they were mostly starving, aspiring artists in various disciplines, living in unheated garrets and cheap hotels in the Latin Quarter, while hanging out nightly on the second floor of the Cafe Momus which was an actual establishment.
The Leoncavallo opera starts with a scene at the Cafe Momus, where the proprietor is demanding to be paid and the artists respond by crafting a manifesto of demands themselves, such as a more extensive selection of newspapers, better coffee, and so on. The second act takes place at an apartment courtyard just as Musette is being evicted after her rich sugar daddy stops paying rent because she's been spending too much time with the painter Marcel. She was supposed to be hosting a soiree that evening, so her circle of friends decide to rearrange her furniture in the courtyard for an impromptu party instead, which culminates in a near-riot when the noisy young people wake up the older tenants. The chorus was a little ragged, but they heroically managed to convey both the revelers and the angry tenants in musical counterpoint.
In contrast to the Puccini version, where Rodolfo and Mimi are the main romantic characters, Leoncavallo's opera focuses more on Marcel and Musette. Soprano Buffy Baggott above as Musette was delightful, and Alex Boyer as Marcel, even with a couple of unsteady moments, sounded ready to take on the major operatic stages of the world with his big, beautiful tenor.
The real Musette was named Marie Roux (seated in the above photo). The book relates that she "was a neatly-balanced mixture of gentleness and heartlessness. She was thoroughly independent, quitted her lover whenever she fancied, and as capriciously rejoined him. The Lothario of the Bohemians had met his match. Once, when, as usual, she and Champfleury [the model for Marcel] had parted forever, Musette came back to stroke Champfleury's head. 'My dear, I am never jealous of my old lovers. When it is finished, it is finished. We see each other again, we are good friends, and that is all. I am not like most women and all the world knows I don't act with men as most women do. If I love someone, I tell him so."
The poet Rodolphe, sung beautifully by baritone Anders Froehlich (above left), was based on Murger himself while Mimi, given a lovely performance by Carrie Hennessey (second from the left) was a conflation of three different lovers, all of them blonde, blue-eyed, and frail. Two of them died young of tuberculosis in charity hospitals, and Murger himself died at the age of 38 from acute arthritis and gangrene, probably brought on by the serious malnutrition he experienced as a young man.
In The Legend of The Latin Quarter, there is a funny story where Murger and Barrière can't agree on an ending for their play, so they bring in a writer friend named Monselet to play referee. "Barrière, it appeared, was insistent that "Mimi must die." Henry shook his head vehemently. He proposed that she be sent on a trip to Italy, at any rate make the ending a happy one. Barrière, who knew the true story of Mimi/Lucille, was adamant. The greatness of the play, he contended, rested upon her tragic death. But for the sentimental Murger, it was harrowing to kill the poor girl a second time. The two collaborators appealed to Monselet. He agreed with Barrière. It was two against one and Henry finally withdrew his objections. "And that," chuckled Monselet afterward, "was how I killed Mimi."