In a couple of weeks, I will be attending a performance of one of the world’s best loved operas, Puccini’s La bohème, at the Detroit Opera House. Michigan Opera Theatre is opening their fall season with the crowd favorite. It is one of my favorite operas as well. When I adopted my cat a few years back, she had a respiratory infection and I named her “Mimi” after the lead soprano of Puccini’s work. My feline compatriot recovered well, and has been the chief inspector of all shopping bags entering the home ever since. There is a saying around my house, that dogs have masters and cats have a staff. I am definitely part of “Mimi’s” staff.
The Detroit Opera House is a wonderful venue, a theater originally built in 1922. It had been closed for almost a decade when the Michigan Opera Theatre bought the building in 1988 to renovate into their new home. The renovations took 8 years to complete, and the Opera House opened in its present form in 1996. The building overlooks Grand Circus Park, and is a gem of the musical scene in Detroit.
La bohème by Puccini is set to a libretto put together by two men, Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. It is a story adapted from a French novel by Henri Murger, Scènes de la vie de bohème. Murger’s book is not a standard novel, more a collection of vignettes, and the libretto is loosely based on the book. Both the book and the opera are set in an area of Paris called the Latin Quarter, home to several universities and institutions of higher learning. The “Latin” part of the name comes from the Latin language traditionally spoken in universities ages ago. The story centers around the life of a group of artistic young people living in poverty in an apartment, and a love affair between the poet Rodolfo and the seamstress Mimi. Mimi is able to sing some wonderful soprano arias in spite of suffering from “consumption”, one of the biggest health care scourges of the time.
Giacomo Puccini was not the only composer to work on the story of these young artists. His good friend and fellow composer Ruggero Leoncavallo was working on a libretto for La bohème at the same time. Leoncavallo wrote his own version of a libretto from the Murger novel, and approached his friend Puccini with a completed story with which to work. Puccini had no idea that his friend had been working on the same subject, and had completed much of his own opera already. Leoncavallo felt a measure of disrespect, and the friendship between the two ended over the matter. Being a gifted composer in his own right, Leoncavallo wrote the music to his own libretto for La bohème. It is Puccini’s version however, that has been the most successful and has entered the standard repertoire. Leoncavallo later revised his work and renamed it Mimi Pinson, but it has never received the acclaim of Puccini’s opera.
Interestingly enough, the libretto that Puccini used (from Illica and Giacosa) was found to originally have five acts, not the four that Puccini set to music. The “missing” act of the libretto was discovered in 1957 after the death of Illica’s widow. In this act, Mimi is encouraged by her girlfriend Musetta to dress up and attract the attention of a Viscount as a potential sugar-daddy. Rodolfo is overwhelmingly jealous when the Viscount and Mimi do dance together. These missing scenes actually help explain some of the jealous remarks that Rodolfo makes later in the opera. Puccini chose not to use this act, leaving it out of his opera for the purpose of concision.
Opera fans love to discuss, argue, and arm wrestle about their favorite singers and roles in their favorite works. My favorite audio recording of La bohème is the 1972 recording conducted by Herbert von Karajan with Luciano Pavarotti as Rodolfo and Mirella Freni as Mimi, featuring the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Pavarotti made his operatic debut in La bohème as Rodolfo way back in 1961, in Italy. In 1972 he was in top vocal form, but not yet the international superstar that he would become. Rodolfo was a signature role of the star tenor, and many of his performances in operatic roles are my favorite version. There is a connection between Pavarotti and my hometown Detroit Opera House. Luciano had promised David DiChiera that he would perform at the Opera House for free when it was ready to open. In 1996, Luciano kept his promise in a free concert with other opera stars to open the renovated theater. Tickets were no cost, but impossible to get. I heard the concert on the live radio broadcast, and the packed audience of 2700 opera lovers sounded like they appreciated every note at the gala event. I imagine some of the same fans of opera will be joining me this month at La bohème.