Arts & Events

New: The ‘Other’ La Bohème by Leoncavallo

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Wednesday March 23, 2016 - 04:01:00 PM

West Edge Opera continued its Doppelgänger season by presenting the ’other’ La Bohème, not Puccini’s but rather Ruggero Leoncavallo’s opera of the same title. Based on the same play, Scenes de la vie de bohème by Henri Murger, as was Puccini’s opera, Leoncavallo’s La Bohème was presented by West Edge Opera at two locations -- on Sunday, March 20 at Mills College and on Tuesday, March 22 at Berkeley’s Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse. I attended the latter performance, and never having heard Leoncavallo’s version of La Bohème before, I was curious to see how different his treatment of this story, musically and dramatically, was from Puccini’s much better known version. There are differences, to be sure; but the basic story remains the same. A group of young bohemian artists, musicians, writers, and intellectuals live an impoverished existence in tiny, drafty apartments in Paris’s Quartier Latin. Rodolfo (or Rodolphe in French) falls in love with Mimi, and Marcello (or Marcel) falls in love with Mimi’s friend Musetta (or Musette). Both couples break up, then reunite at the end, only to see the tubercular Mimi die in Rodolfo’s arms. 

Leoncavallo actually began writing his La Bohème before Puccini began his. Leoncavallo even showed his friend Puccini a libretto he was working on and suggested that Puccini might like to help with it. Puccini declined; but a few days later Puccini told Leoncavallo he was now inspired to write his own opera based on La Bohème. This put a damper on the two composers’ friendship. Puccini’s La Bohème was finished first and premiered at Turin’s Teatro Reggio on February 1, 1896, while Leoncavallo’s La Bohème premiered at Venice’s Teatro La Fenice on May 6, 1897. 

Ruggero Leoncavallo is best known, of course, for his opera I Pagliacci, a sordid tale of sexual infidelity and violent retribution among a troupe of itinerant actors. I Pagliacci, which is often paired with Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana in a double-bill of one-act operas, falls into the musical category of Italian realismo, an end of the 19th century style of music dramas drawn from life among the lower strata of Italian and Sicilian society. The stories are often tragic, and the music is often dissonant. Leoncavallo’s La Bohème fits this formula of Italian realismo quite a bit more aptly than does Puccini’s La Bohème, which latter, while it tells the same tragic story, is far less dissonant and soars far more lyrically with its sumptuous melodies than does Leoncavallo’s darker version. Granted, all we had to go on in West Edge Opera’s concert version of Leoncavallo’s La Bohème was a piano score, albeit performed with great pianistic expressivity by the company’s Musical Director Jonathan Khuner. With no other instrument than piano, however, it was well nigh impossible to guess at Leoncavallo’s talent for coloristic orchestration.  

Rodolfo in Leoncavallo’s opera is sung by a baritone, not a tenor. Here it was Anders Froehlich, who has sung with San Francisco Opera and Los Angeles Opera, who handled the role expertly with his deep baritone and excellent Italian diction. Mimi is sung by a soprano, and here it was Carrie Hennessy, who sang with great intensity and clarion high notes. Marcello was sung by Alex Boyer, whose ringing tenor was a highlight of this production. Musetta was sung by veteran mezzo-soprano Buffy Baggott, who also turned in a virtuoso performance of great intensity. Interestingly, the finest love duet in Leoncavallo’s La Bohème occurs not between Rodolfo and Mimi but between Marcello and Musetta; and their Act I, Scene 1 duet was brilliantly sung. There is, of course, much good-humored banter among the Bohemians, and in Leoncavallo’s version Schaunard, a musician, has a much greater role than in Puccini’s version. Here Schaunard, who often acts as the group’s master of ceremonies, was consummately sung by baritone Michael Orlinsky. In Leoncavallo’s La Bohème, Schaunard has a girl-friend, Euphemia (or Phémie); and this caricatured figure was sung by mezzo-soprano Sally Mouzon. Colline, the philosopher of the group, was sung by bass Ryan Bradford. The Bohemians’ nemesis in Leoncavallo’s version is not their landlord but the proprietor of Café Momus, a man named Gaudenzio (or Gaudence), sung here by tenor Michael Mendelsohn, who also sings the role of Musetta’s concierge, Durand. Another character, missing from Puccini’s opera, is Barbemuche, a man of letters and patron of the arts who befriends the group and pays their bills. Barbemuche was sung by veteran baritone Paul Cheek. A chorus of tenants indignant at the noise made by the party-loving Bohemians belts forth with angry insults that lead to a fight, during which Mimi sneaks off with a young Viscount, sung by bass Ryan Bradford. When Rodolfo realizes what has happened, he is disconsolate. Later, Mimi returns and tries to reconcile with Rodolfo, saying she loves only him. But Rodolfo rebuffs her. On the other hand, Musetta, who sincerely loves Marcello, can’t stand the hunger and poverty of their existence, and so, regretfully, she leaves Marcello. Mimi and Musetta sing a tearful duet over their plight. The opera’s final scene is much the same as in Puccini’s version. Mimi returns, terribly ill and coughing furiously. Musetta sacrifices her jewels to pay for a doctor, but it is too late. Mimi dies in Rodolfo’s arms. The instrumental music of Leoncavallo is somber here, but what’s missing is Puccini’s brilliant ending on the repeated cries of Rodolfo’s “Mimi! Mimi!”