Audiences worldwide have flocked to Puccini’s perennial favorite since the 1890s, making it a safe bet that the days of writing anything new about La bohème expired decades ago. So it’s interesting to look back on what writers had to say about the opera in its earliest days, and, of particular local interest, great fun to dig in newspaper archives for a time when none other than the Metropolitan Opera Company gave the work a performance at Pittsburgh’s long gone Duquesne Garden in Oakland on the evening of April 16, 1901, with the legendary Dame Nellie Melba in the cast as Mimì, and conductor Luigi Mancinelli wielding the baton in the orchestra pit. At the opera’s conclusion, popular demand trampled artistic integrity, and the audience was thrilled when Melba returned to the stage and gave the “Mad Scene” from Lucia di Lammermoor for good measure.
“There were some lovely bits of melody,” a writer named G. Schlotterbeck noted of La bohème in the next morning’s Pittsburgh Post, “but it is in the orchestration that Puccini glories, and oftimes fairly dazzles. He has a habit of outlining the flimsiest tonal sketch, then without warning taking whole handfuls of the rich colors and hues of the harp, the ‘cellos, the double basses and even the tympani and hurling them against his canvas… Every note seems to lie just right.” While “G.” may have nailed it 118 years ago, fortunately Puccini’s music lives on, and there is always a chance to hear something new in La bohème.
Pittsburgh Opera’s upcoming production, directed by Stephanie Havey, will offer ample opportunity for just such a thing, since the performances will serve as the local debut of soprano Nicole Cabell, present favorites such as Sean Panikkar, Craig Verm and others in roles they’ve not done here before, and the orchestration that truly and “fairly dazzles” will be conducted by Jean-Luc Tingaud.
Mr. Tingaud recently and generously took the time to share some thoughts on La bohème for Pittsburgh in the Round.
“It’s the perfect opera for conductors because it has everything,” he offered as his favorite thing about the piece – one that he’s conducted in a number of previous productions in other cities. “There are big ensemble scenes, very spectacular orchestration, the very lyrical moments and the famous arias that we all know. I love it because it’s a piece that is really a lot of fun and very exciting to conduct. Also it’s great to have singers that are so comfortable with the opera because you can really work very deeply into the interpretation and what you want to do with this piece. La bohème is a treasure.”
Like all inspired conductors, he approaches works “from scratch” with each new production he oversees. “I always find new things in La bohème. It’s like a secret text for us. We have this beautiful score, 500 pages, and we spend time studying the score. And then we realize, ‘oh yeah, he wants this, and he writes that.’ Puccini is very detailed, so there’s always lots of information that you can gather to deepen your interpretation of this wonderful score.
“Puccini knew voices, so he wrote perfectly for them. That’s great for the singers. And he had such a technique, such mastery of writing for the orchestra. He wrote a score that is comparable to the best symphonic works of his time. And that’s great for the players, for the orchestra. Puccini had this sense of theater – of the words, the fun. La bohème is very fun. It’s witty. The contrast between the fun and the drama is why we are so taken with this opera. We can do it many, many times and never get bored by La bohème. We always find those many magical moments.
“It’s very different from his Tosca, from Madama Butterfly, and Turandot, of course. Those are more ‘Technicolor’ operas, spectacular with big orchestras, and they need big, big voices. La bohème is lighter for the singers. You need singers who can act, who are really the characters of the piece. And you need the singers to be a team. The characters live together, and they experience life together, and they are all young. I am so happy with the cast here because that is how they are. And they are all so experienced in that they’ve done La bohème many times, so, as I’ve mentioned, we can really go very deeply into the interpretation of the piece.
“Those wonderful melodies that come first in the orchestra and then are taken up by the singers grow on you. It’s really magical what Puccini wrote. He had such inspiration. It took him 4-5 years to write an opera. When he was young, he studied in Milan, and he lived this kind of artistic bohemian life. So he put a lot of himself into La bohème. Also he knew all the secrets of the heart. That’s why it’s so amazing when you see how he wrote with the librettist – they were constantly communicating, and saying ‘I want this, I want that.’ Puccini was amazing, a great composer.”
Mr. Tingaud’s palpable enthusiasm augurs well for another operatic treat, beginning at the Benedum Center this Saturday evening. March 30. For tickets, full production details and more, visit Pittsburgh Opera.
Cast photos by David Bachman
A Pittsburgh native, George B. Parous began his studies of music and the ‘cello in grade school before his interests turned to opera, its performers and history while in his teens. He has been acknowledged as a contributor or editor of several published works (the first being “Rosa Raisa, A Biography of a Diva,” Northeastern University Press, 2001), and is currently working on his own biography of the German-American dramatic soprano, Johanna Gadski, who sang at the Metropolitan during the “Golden Age of Opera.” A retired IT Analyst, he is an avid genealogist, and has traced his maternal line to 8th century Wessex, England. He’s been a contributor to Pittsburgh in the Round since 2014.