La Bohème: an opera virgin’s guide

It is said one always remembers the first time: and last night was very much a first for me. My first opera, that is: La Bohème (“The Bohemian”), by Puccini, beamed live to the Broadway Letchworth from the Royal Opera House, London. Ah, the magic of digital streaming!

This is therefore not the usual review. I do not know opera. OK: a few of the more popular “tunes”, from William Tell to Nessun dorma. But i scarcely know my Tosca from my Ring Cycle and so this review is dedicated neither to the operaphiles, for whom last night was undoubtedly their umpteenth visit, nor the phobes, who would never, ever, ever.

Opera difference

Rather, it is for those others, like myself before last night, who every so often browse the live event listings and haven’t yet plucked up the courage to dip a toe in the water. At the outset, i joined the crowd with some trepidation. It was not the usual cinema-going audience: mostly older, better dressed. But being young and wearing skinnies is not a bar.

And amazingly, for a weekday evening, it was a full house. Every seat in the auditorium taken, with many turned away in advance. This, i gather, is a Letchworth thing, as the Broadway prides itself on its live events and regularly beats every other venue in the country hands down on attendance figures.

Then it was settle down to the opera – an odd experience that: a live event on a cinema screen – and fingers crossed. I needn’t have worried. From the off, i was grabbed by the music. That, too, was different: for as a regular fan of musicals, i am used to the idea of music- backed action, interspersed with the occasional show-stopper. La Bohème does not boast the latter: but that was not an issue.

Simple story

As plot goes, it is a slight thing. Without the music, pretty much all the action would fit into a half hour on the small screen and, despite the seriousness of the subject, i found myself re-imaging it as an episode of the Big Bang Theory. Well, its about four geek guys – a poet, a painter, a philosopher and a musician – sharing a Paris flat. Rodolfo (Joseph Calleja), the poet, meets and falls in love with Mimi (Anna Netrebko). Marcello (Lucas Meachem), the painter, is in an on-off relationship with Musetta (Jennifer Rowley).

But the boys can’t even. Mimi is sweet and ill, Musetta loud and flirtatious (to put it mildly): Rodolfo can’t even with the responsibility, and Marcello can’t even with the jealousy. So the relationship is off, until the final Act, when a terminally ill Mimi staggers back through the door of their lodging and dies in Rodolfo’s arms. Cue tears. Not just me but – i checked – at the end most of the women on my row were discreetly dabbing at their eyes.

Deep emotion

There are things about opera to which one has to adjust. Conceived originally as music with words, every little action, from “she’s dying” to “what time is it?” is sung, which is why some people still make mock of the form. The singing also makes facial expression suspect: so again, emotion is loaded directly into the words. Everything is stated, and there is far less room for subtlety than in film.

Or rather, as the music washed over, it became clearer that opera was more than that: not so much words to music, as emotions through music, and for an emotion vampire such as myself, this worked. Oh boy, it worked!

Give it a go!

So now i am sad that it took me so long to discover opera. I am a convert and if i don’t go straight back again this Sunday (June 14), when La Bohème is up again, or in a few weeks time for William Tell (July 5), it is only because i am a woman on a budget: although at £15, including a glass of wine, it is a good deal cheaper than paying the £100-plus you could be paying at the Royal Opera House proper.

And in between Acts, rather than spending even more at an over-priced bar, there are interviews on screen with key players in the production.

As first times go, last night was a success. It won’t be for everyone, but if, like me, you are wondering whether to test the experience, just go for it. You may find yourself, unexpectedly, opening the door to an art form you never believed was you.

Heaven forfend! You might actually find yourself enjoying it.


About janefae

On my way from here to there
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