Perfect Opera

What makes an opera work? If I had to guide a friend through the devious answers to that question, my final goal would be an understanding of the human interplay with Mozart‘s music in The Marriage of Figaro, tempered with awe at the interaction of harmony and tragedy in Berg’s Wozzeck. There would be other major mileposts along our way -- Verdi‘s Otello, Wagner’s Die Meistersinger and parts of the Ring, Monteverdi‘s Orfeo, Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. We would start with La Boheme, and we would stay there for quite a while.

Hearing Puccini‘s infinitely appealing score at the Hollywood Bowl the other night, in a generally excellent performance under John Mauceri, even without scenery and with the cast -- excellently led by Patricia Racette’s Mimi -- in evening clothes, I found myself amazed once again (for perhaps the 500th time) at what a sure piece of dramatic workmanship it all is. Let me run through a few of the moments that tickled my fancy this latest time around:

The very opening: It takes two brief musical phrases -- Marcello‘s music ill-tempered and choppy, Rodolfo’s response lyrical, soaring -- and we know these two characters as well as they know each other. Later, Rodolfo‘s graceful curve of a tune will recur during his first outpouring to Mimi (”Che gelida manina . . .“).

The guys plan their outing, to spend some newfound cash downstairs at the cafe. A melody winds its way softly through the orchestra, distinctive in its antique harmonies (parallel fifths! automatic D-minus!); it might be an old Christmas carol. The same tune, more joyous and aggressive, will usher in the festivities in Act 2. It will reappear, chill and bleak, at the start of Act 3, where it will transform into a haunting tone poem about a dismal corner of wintry Paris at daybreak. I love Puccini’s atmosphere pieces, usually at the start of operatic acts: the Roman daybreak in the last act of Tosca, life along the river at the start of Il Tabarro, dawn breaking over Nagasaki near the end of Madama Butterfly, even the offstage choruses resounding through the Chinese night in Turandot, leading up to ”Nessun dorma.“

Mimi knocks and enters; soft strings fill the room with her aroma. Her radiant, quiet tune becomes her first song to Rodolfo (”Mi chiamano Mimi“); it will identify her throughout the opera, will turn sad under her farewell in Act 3, and will shatter and drift away as her life ebbs at the end. Listen, in this first encounter, as she and Rodolfo move toward each other, shyly and with broken phrases, then a more substantial vocal line as their hands touch.

The second act of La Boheme is surely Puccini‘s shortest: under 18 minutes in my favorite recording (Tebaldi-Bergonzi). It’s amazing how much takes place, with the interplay among the ”Bohemians“ down front, the biz with Musetta and her sugar daddy, the street kids and their balloons, the panorama of surging Paris life, including parading tin soldiers, on Christmas Eve. It‘s all like cinematic writing before its time, and you can’t resist.

It‘s easy enough to poke holes in Puccini’s art, and heaven knows that I‘ve done my share. I saw the new movie of Tosca, fell in love with Angela Gheorghiu in the title role, and still came home with the empty feeling of having wasted two hours on music that constantly must strain for its dramatic effect, whose harmonies curdle the senses with their drab insistence, whose characters derive no life from their music and remain cardboard even in moments of high passion. La Boheme is different; it teems with life, it reaches out in its youthful urgency and pulls you in. It survives restaging, as in the not-bad Baz Luhrmann updating now available on video and supposedly Broadway-bound. Its storyline outlives generation gaps, but its music retains its appeal even more fiercely. There is a moment in the last act, after the mortally ill Mimi is brought back to the garret to die, wherein if I’ve heard it 500 times I have wept real tears 500 times. The forgiveness scene at the end of Figaro also affects me that way, as does the moment in Die Walkure when the doors blow open and moonlight pours in; if this one masterpiece off Puccini‘s workbench reaches me on that level, then Puccini can’t be all that bad.

Mozart can‘t be all that bad, either, but you may need to remind yourself of that after the Bowl concert two nights later. I’m sorry, but I just don‘t get what people see in Gerard Schwarz’s conducting, and probably never will. When I arrived in Los Angeles in 1980, he was leading the L.A. Chamber Orchestra on a downward path, betraying that ensemble‘s whole valuable purpose by taking on the symphonic repertory. In New York I heard Mostly Mozart programs led with no grace, no sense of the lovely rise and fall of the classical line in sovereign scores. From Seattle I hear recordings by Schwarz of bygone American symphonic repertory -- conservative, lumbering pieces by George Chadwick, Howard Hanson, David Diamond -- whose existence in our history probably justifies their place (but not by much). I remember the recordings Schwarz once made of old-timey trumpet and cornet repertory, two cherishable discs on Nonesuch that are worth your search. And I wonder why he abandoned that repertory, which still represents the best in his artistry.

At the Bowl he led Mozart, ending with the wonderful ”Linz“ Symphony, with its remarkable scoring for trumpets and horns buried in orchestral imbalance. A young pianist named Stewart Goodyear produced all the notes but came nowhere close to the passion and fantasy in the D-minor Piano Concerto. And if you didn’t think it possible to flatten out the grace and affection in Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, that only means you weren‘t there that night. Through some curious circumstance that nobody at the Philharmonic has yet been able to explain, the program was given twice, on Tuesday and Thursday nights. Believe me, once was enough.

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