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Review: Getting beyond the pathos in Puccini's 'La boheme'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 24, 2009 - Giacomo Puccini’s “La bohème” is an opera that appears regularly in any standard-repertory house of consequence – opera organizations such as Opera Theatre of St. Louis, for example.

Opera Theatre has mounted it five times in its 33-year history, the first time in 1978, the company’s third season. Four of the shows were main stage productions at the Loretto Hilton Center at Webster University; one was a touring production. The only operas to give “La bohème” a run for its money in St. Louis are  “Madame Butterfly,” also by Puccini, and Gioachino Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville,” which tie “La bohème” at five shows each; and Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata,” which has received four Opera Theatre productions.

The first time I saw “La bohème” was the 1978 show, and I cried when Mimi died. I don’t cry at the end of this show anymore, but its vigor, its focus on youthful naïveté and the dreams of aspiring artists, its intoxicatingly beautiful music – all this continues to keep me and legions of other music lovers coming back for reprises. It is a Siren’s song, and the producers who need to sell tickets to keep their companies solvent put it up frequently.

Why is it that the faithful belly up to the box office for tickets to this show? Is it because our hearts are ever open to the possibilities inherent in love-sweet-love, and is it that we hope this time, the medicine purchased by Marcello and Musetta is some new antibiotic that will do the trick, and that Mimi will recover and everyone will live happily ever after? But it never happens that way, no more than Pinkerton's having a change of heart, sending Kate home and settling down with Cio-Cio San and little Trouble, having renounced his wicked Western ways, thus presenting in a happy-ending “Madame Butterfly.”

Nope, it is not going to happen. Audiences leave every performance of “La bohème” a little down, perhaps, depending on how convincingly Mimi expires. What carries you home is a strong dose of pathos and the spell cast by Puccini’s exquisite music, unless the show is genuinely wretched.

The 2009 Opera Theatre “Bohème,” which opened Saturday (May 23), certainly is not wretched, and in fact is entirely satisfactory and satisfying. Musetta (Amanda Majeski) walks off with the show thrown over her shoulder like a sable scarf, but that happens a lot with this opera. After all, she and her on-again, off-again boy friend, Marcello, provide colorful personalities in a cast of characters otherwise generally bland and anemic.

So, that is “La bohème” – an opera with great staying power, and an opera with the power to enchant us again and again. That is enough, I suppose, and perhaps I should be content with this surfeit of artistic riches. Because we get a steady diet of this opera, however, and because as time goes on the story seems more and more preposterous, a 21st-century operagoer might ponder whether “La bohème” has dynamism beyond a sad story set to glorious music, if there is embedded in it a lesson to be learned about life in 2009?

Without straining too hard to tease greater meaning from the opera, you can discover a strong, contemporary message about art, about its enduring power and about the challenges artists face in surviving in a world that treats art capriciously. Our tendency, after all, is to embrace it passionately and to pay lavish attention at one moment, then to push it to the margins of life. We withhold, both in times of trouble and in times of great prosperity, our interest in it and our willingness to support it adequately.

This inconsistency makes for an unpredictable and untenable condition for the arts in America. It is rather like living with someone with a borderline personality disorder. You never know what to expect next.

Arts organizations such as Opera Theatre of St. Louis were born and nurtured in a moment in American cultural history when art in its many forms was being given its due, not only by generous individuals but also by corporations, foundations and by local, state and the federal governments. Allocations to arts organizations large and small, and to individuals who were taking art into new and exciting cultural territories, were generous. In recent years, however, and for ideological as well as economic reasons, a once vigorous and progressive national commitment to the arts in America has suffered.

For example, when school systems need to reduce their budgets,  music and visual arts programs often go out the window. When states see revenue shortfalls, culture is an easy place to cut a corner in a budget. Who'll notice as long as the potholes are filled?

The big, established organizations scramble for funds and manage to survive, most of them, but individual poets, philosophers, painters and musicians – the Rodolfos, Collines, Marcellos and Schaunards -- suffer, and are extraordinarily vulnerable to this capricious funding behavior. With no fuel for the creaky old stove, creativity may perish. Before long, too many talented people simply give up.

The nation does not owe the artist a living. Yet, an enlightened nation, one that even in the grip of economic recession remains wealthy, should recognize that men and women who have the ability and the will to create should be encouraged to do so with support from public treasuries, be it in direct payments or in subsidies to existing organizations.

Art’s contribution to our national vitality, while not calculable by crass measuring, is inestimable as we work to maintain civilization. That message, that hope, that will to art – and by extension encouragement to support it privately and with public funds – just may be an important undercurrent of “La bohème,” one that accompanies us back to our workaday lives  with music that not only strengthens souls  but challenges us to sustain civilization with steady, consistent and generous financial support of art.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.

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