My tiny heart is frozen – La Bohème Revisited in middle age

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Vitalii Liskovetskyi and Alyona Kistenyova in Ellen Kent’s production of Puccini’s La Bohème

If it’s possible to be formed by the music you hear in your mother’s womb, I’ve been formed by Puccini’s La Bohème. Out of the blue, my father died at the age of 34 in my mother’s first weeks of pregnancy, and she got through it by wearing out her LPs of Puccini’s glorious opera. By the time I started school, I was already humming Che Gelida Manina. By the time I reached college, I knew whole arias word for word and I’m sure it was one of the reasons I taught myself Italian in later life.

So Bohème is probably the only opera I’d actually pay to see, and in fact I’ve seen two productions, spaced by 35 years or so. Last night I realised I’d changed more than the opera had.

I can still listen to Mimi’s farewell on Spotify while doing the ironing and find myself in tears. But seeing it staged seems to sharpen my critical faculties. No matter how glorious the singing (and last night’s Ellen Kent production was well sung, if a little scrappily staged), I can’t shake off the thought that this is basically the story of a dying woman and her abusive, controlling boyfriend trying, and failing, to break up. In fact, misogyny runs through the whole piece. Women are decorative, fickle, the source of moody male tantrums and broken hearts. They are also a tradeable and disposable commodity, guarded and policed by their possessive boyfriends who watch hawk-like for the revealing of a female ankle in public.

Oh, how can you, people will cry? The music’s gorgeous. Puccini was only reflecting the social mores of the period. Actually, Puccini’s philandering caused emotional carnage in his lifetime and led to at least one young woman’s suicide, but nobody said you had to be perfect to write wonderful music. Besides, the more well-informed will argue, in Muger’s original La Vie de Bohéme, Mimi’s a nasty little tart on the make, and Puccini remodelled her as an innocent victim. But I don’t think that feminist argument convinces. The view of women in La Bohéme swings between cynicism and sentimentality; both are the breeding ground of abuse.

I’m probably just getting on a bit. I’m old enough to be irritated by people who text in the stalls, who leave so rapidly after Act I that they forget to take their fags with them, who grumble that it’s not in English. I’m old enough to think that when Colline, looking every inch the hipster in this production, sings an ode to the greatcoat he’s about to pawn to buy Mimi a muff for her cold hands, he might as well wrap her hands in the coat and hang on, she’s going to be dead and gone in five minutes. The Who hoped they’d die before they got old, and maybe they had a point.

Or it may just be that yesterday Downing Street played host to more operatic drama than even the stage of the Palace Theatre, Manchester could manage. I really wish I could stop deconstructing things, but that’s a baby boomer English graduate for you.

I think I’ll stick to Spotify in future. It’s cheaper, anyway.

 

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