O buon Marcello, aiuto!

Composition of the Day 2014.12.19 09:00

[. . .] in every case we have found the same thing to be true: opera is big, bigger than the spoken theater, bigger than life. And what makes it bigger? Music, sung music.

Just how is it that music does this? We're going to find out by taking the entire third act of Puccini's La Boheme, a brief but delicious act, and examining it from the viewpoint of what music does to expand mere drama into opera.

The scene is Paris, 1830. We see a tavern, located near one of those toll gates they used to have on the outskirts of the city. It is a gray winter morning, not yet quite dawn. It is snowing; it is very cold. Right away we hear Puccini setting this atmosphere for us in the music: cold, hollow fifths:

[. . .]

And because we're in a laboratory, we're free to make experiments; and so we're going to break this story into two versions- a spoken version and the sung version. First you will see each section acted out in English, by "normal" actors, but in exact accordance with the libretto; and only then you will hear it sung, so that you really know what is going on. (But a word of caution: remember what we said about librettos. They are not plays; they are poetic skeletons.)

Our story involves four main characters, all Latin Quarter bohemians: Mimi, the delicate little seamstress, and Rodolfo, the starving poet, who has recently become her lover. The other loving couple consists of Rodolfo's best pal, Marcello, who is a painter, and Musetta, a spicy dish who has been living with him. When we last saw these Greenwich Village types, in Act II, all was well. They were bathed in love and laughter on Christmas Eve. But now, apparently, something has gone wrong, as Mimi is about to tell us.

Actors (speaking) : 

Mimi: Excuse me, sir, Can you tell me which is the tavern where a painter is working?

Policeman (Points): There it is.

Mimi: Thank you. (To milkmaid) Oh, my good woman, would you be so kind as to call Marcello, the painter? I have to speak with him, and I have so little time. Tell him- softly- that Mimi is waiting. (Milkmaid goes inside)

Policeman (To market woman): Hey, what's in that basket? (Looks) Empty. Pass.

Marcello (Entering): Mimi! Mimi: I hoped that I would find you here.

Marcello: Yes, we've been living here rent-free for more than a month. Musetta sings for the customers, and I paint warriors all over the facade. It's cold out here. Come in.

Mimi: Is Rodolfo inside?

Marcello: Yes.

Mimi: Then I can't go in- no, no!

Marcello: Why not?

Mimi (Breaking down): Oh, good Marcello, help me! Please!

Marcello: What's gone wrong?

Mimi: Rodolfo has left me out of jealousy. He loves me, but he doesn't trust me. Any little look or word or gesture I make throws him into a fit of suspicion and anger. I can even feel him spying on my dreams at night. Every minute he's shouting, "It's over! You're not for me! Go take another loverl" Ah, it breaks my heart. Of course he doesn't mean it, but what is there to answer, Marcello?

Marcello: If you're both so unhappy, you shouldn't live together.

Mimi: You're right. We should part. But we've tried to so often, and we can't. Help us, do help us! Would you talk to him?

Marcello: Now take Musetta and me. We're happy because we don't take our love so seriously. We sing, we laugh- that's the only way.

Mimi: Marcello, please do your best to help us.

Marcello: All right, all right. I'll talk to him.

Well, now, that's not exactly a plot to set the world on fire. A little lovers' spat, that's all. He's left her; he's jealous; she doesn't know what to do. I imagine you couldn't care less. But now let's have the same scene with Puccini's music, and you will find yourself caring a great deal.

Skip to 56m 7s; better yet watch from start to finish.

Do you find yourself caring about the story? Of course you do. Why? The addition of perfectly glorious music. But it's not just any old glorious music. It is carefully planned by a theatrical wizard to take the characters and magnify them for us.

From What Makes Opera Grand? Bernstein, Leonard. 1958.

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