Saturday, May 16, 2009

Opera guide 4: La Boheme

Puccini's La Bohème (literally Bohemia, but usually rendered as The Bohemians, 1896) hardly needs to have more words written about it. It's easily the most popular, most-produced opera in the repertory. Opera connoisseurs often claim that they can resist La Bohème's appeal, and some treat its frequent appearances with open disdain.

But that disdain is misplaced. La Bohème deserves its place as the most popular opera of all time. Its characters are compelling, its music is a soaring and unforgettable expression of passion, and its libretto--adapted by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa from Henri Murger's 1851 novel Scènes de la vie de bohème--is brilliantly witty. (In fact, I think the libretto would have been even better if it were longer: see below.) A good production with capable, committed singers rarely fails to be moving; one of the most effective productions I've seen was put on at a 400-seat theater by the tiny, under-budgeted San Francisco Lyric Opera company.

La Bohème's popularity obscures some things about it that are truly unusual. For one thing, it's about ordinary people living in what was for Puccini's audiences an almost contemporary urban setting. There are no gods, kings, queens, or even aristocrats in evidence (though there is a viscount, who is never seen or heard). For another, Puccini's melodies are virtually continuous--there aren't really separate numbers (although certain moments are often excerpted). In a way, it's a return to a 17th-century, Monteverdian style of composition (a future Opera Guide will cover L'Incoronazione di Poppea). La Bohème also has an odd temporal structure: the first two acts take place over the course of a single evening; the next two span about eight months. The reason for that odd imbalance of elapsed time involves a missing act.

La Bohème opens on Christmas Eve in bohemian Paris. Four friends--Rodolfo the writer, Marcello the painter, Schaunard the musician, and Colline the philosopher--share a cold, underfurnished garret. In Act I, Schaunard returns to the freezing garret with a windfall; the bohemians head out to the Cafe Momus (Momus is the Greek god of satire and mockery, the god of writers) to celebrate. Rodolfo stays behind for a few minutes to finish an article--the hackwork he does to support his true calling, writing plays. He's surprised by Mimì, a seamstress neighbor, whose candle has gone out and who is looking for a light. Rodolfo contrives to extinguish his own candle, and Mimì (deliberately?) drops her key. While searching for the key (which Rodolfo finds and silently pockets), their hands meet in the dark (Rodolfo: "Che gelida manina" (What an icy little hand)). Rodolfo tells her about himself ("Chi son? Sono un poeta" (Who am I? I'm a poet)) and Mimì responds, at first hesitantly, and then with growing warmth ("Mi chiamano Mimì" (They call me Mimì)). Ardently, Rodolfo declares his feelings ("O soave fanciulla" (Oh gentle beauty)), his voice soon joined by Mimì's in a passionate love duet.



(Rodolfo: "Oh, gentle beauty, how sweet your face looks in the moonlight; you are the dream of love that I have always dreamed." Mimi: "His sweet words delight my heart. Love, you alone command us!" This clip is from the 1965 film directed by Franco Zeffirelli and starring Gianni Raimondo as Rodolfo and Mirella Freni as Mimì.) They leave to join the other bohemians at the cafe.

Act II takes place at the Cafe Momus and its surrounding square; we're introduced to Musetta, Marcello's on-again, off-again mistress, a woman who knows her attractiveness to men and exploits them to achieve her own desires ("Quando me n'vo" (When I stroll out alone on the street)). She's arrived at the Cafe Momus with her latest conquest in tow, the rich old man Alcindoro, but leaves with Marcello--sticking Alcindoro with the bill.

Act III occurs a month or two later in a neighborhood on the edge of Paris. Marcello has been hired to paint a mural in a cafe, and Musetta is staying there with him. Rodolfo arrives to tell Marcello that he and Mimì can't stay together. He claims that he's jealous of Mimì's flirtatious nature; Marcello tells him that he should treat love lightly, as he and Musetta do. Rodolfo then confesses (overheard by an eavesdropping Mimì) that he's really concerned about Mimì's health--the cold, drafty garret is making her cough worse. Living with him is killing her; he wants her to find a better situation. Mimì reveals herself to Rodolfo and they reconcile, resolving to put off their breakup until spring. Meanwhile Marcello becomes enraged by Musetta's flirtations with the customers of the cafe--so much for treating love lightly--and after a fierce argument they split up again (not for the last time, we suspect).

The final act is set in the early fall; Rodolfo and Marcello each commiserate with the other about the company in which their former girlfriends have been seen. (James Valenti as Rodolfo and Troy Cook as Marcello conducted by Alberto Veronesi, Florida Grand Opera, 2008.)



Suddenly Musetta returns, with Mimì. Mimì is extremely ill now, and the bohemians rally to try to help her--fearing, though, that it's too late.

So Act I and Act II take place over about four hours on Christmas eve; Act III takes place in winter, and Act IV in late summer/early fall. What's missing, of course, is spring/early summer. And the original libretto included an act that filled in this missing time and revealed how Mimì found another lover.

In the missing act, the four bohemians arrive at Musetta's grand apartment for a party, only to discover that--after being abandoned by her new lover the Councillor--she's being evicted. They determine to have the party anyway, arrange the furniture removed from her apartment into a makeshift ballroom in the building's courtyard. Schaunard conducts the orchestra and, when the building's tenants start to complain, they're all invited to join the party. One of the guests is the Viscount Paolo, who dances and flirts with Mimì as a drunken, jealous Rodolfo looks on. Marcello and Musetta reunite, while Rodolfo bitterly renounces his love for Mimì. As dawn breaks, the guests stagger away as auctioneers arrive and begin selling off the furniture.

Luigi Illica felt that cutting this act inflicted an "enormous wound" on his libretto. Not only is it filled with delightful incidents, it's structurally brilliant. It sets up a reversal of the situations of Rodolfo/Mimì and Marcello/Musetta at the end of Act III, provides another solo opportunity for Musetta as in Act II, and creates an alternation of intimate settings with public festivities from act to act. But Puccini never set it to music, perhaps recognizing that it slowed the opera's dramatic momentum. Given the effectiveness of the final version, it's hard to argue with Puccini's decision.

Many versions of La Bohème have been recorded. On CD, two remain at the top of my list. The first is Sir Thomas Beecham's 1956 recording featuring Jussi Bjorling as Rodolfo and Victoria de los Angeles as a vulnerable, girlish Mimì. In terms of pacing, the conviction of the singers and dramatic effectiveness this version remains unsurpassed. You won't even be aware that it's in mono. But if it's stereo lushness you desire, Herbert von Karajan's 1972 recording with Luciano Pavarotti as Rodolfo and Mirella Freni as Mimì will let you wallow in the sheer beauty of Puccini's music to your heart's content. Like many Karajan recordings, this one favors voluptuous sound over dramatic pace, but when the sound is this lovely it's hard to complain.

On DVD, the Metropolitan Opera production excerpted in the clip above is beautiful to look at (the production is by Franco Zeffirelli) and despite some occasional signs of vocal strain the cast is generally marvelous; Teresa Stratas is an especially affecting Mimì. Renata Scotto's Musetta, though, seems a bit mature for her role, and vocally she's not at her freshest, either. The 1965 Zefirelli film also has a wonderful cast--Freni's Mimì is especially lovely--but as with many opera films of the time it was either lip-synched or post-dubbed, which can be distracting. Baz Luhrmann's Opera Australia production updates the proceedings to the 1950s and offers a youthful and attractive cast in a production that otherwise seems to be reaching half-heartedly for Brechtian alienation effects. David Hobson's lyric tenor is a shade light for Rodolfo, but he throws himself into the role with complete commitment, and Cheryl Barker offers a sympathetic Mimì. But as I mentioned at the start, no matter which version you favor it's hard to go wrong with La Bohème.

The Cambridge Opera Handbook on La Bohème edited by Arthur Groos and Roger Parker (Cambridge University Press, 1986) is a wonderful companion volume to the opera. It discusses the opera's source in Murger's book and play, the origins and development of the opera (including a full libretto of the cut scenes), Puccini's conflicts with fellow composer Leoncavallo (who may have given Puccini the idea for the opera while in the process of writing his own Bohème), its reception and stage history. The Handbook makes hearing or viewing the opera a richer experience; but of course, the dilemmas of Rodolfo and Mimì, Marcello and Musetta require no background or interpretation to be immediate, vivid, and emotionally affecting.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Dil Hai Tumhaara

Can a mediocre movie also be brilliant? After seeing Dil Hai Tumhaara (My Heart is Yours, 2002), I'm compelled to say "yes."

For the first 90 minutes or so, this film's stock characters and formulaic situations provide at best a pleasant time-pass if you happen to be in a particularly indulgent and non-critical frame of mind, or happen to be (as I am) a big Preity Zinta fan. DHT is the story of the loving sisters Nimmi (Mahima Chaudhary) and Shalu (Preity, looking too adorable for words). Although neither sister knows it, Shalu is actually Nimmi's half-sister: she was born to their father's mistress, while Nimmi was born to his wife Sarita (Rekha). When the father and mistress are mortally injured in a car accident, Sarita unwillingly agrees to raise the infant Shalu as her own. But Sarita can't look at Shalu without reliving the bitterness of her betrayal by her husband, and so Shalu grows up and blossoms into Preity Zinta without ever experiencing maternal love. Instead, it's her sister Nimmi who comforts Shalu when she is sad or hurt or feeling alone, and so a fierce emotional bond has developed over the years between the two sisters:


Shalu's only other friend in the world besides Nimmi is Sameer (Jimmy Shergill), a puppeteer, who has been madly in love with her since childhood but has never revealed his feelings.

Enter Dev Khanna (Arjun Rampal), the tall, handsome son of a fabulously wealthy industrialist (Alok Nath). Dev has come to town with his father at Shalu's urging to investigate the exploitation of local farmers. The cause is factory managers Roopchand and Khoobchand, two brothers who are not only driving the farmers into bankruptcy but are stealing from the firm, and whose toupees ludicrously evoke a certain Bollywood superstar:


Dev and Shalu meet cute, and Dev begins to be consumed by thoughts hitherto alien to him.


(That's Dev's fantasy Shalu in the silver lamé--the real Shalu favors jeans and t-shirts. One of the fun things about DHT is how many of the songs--this still is from "Chayya Hai Jo Dil"--become vehicles for fantasies, often of multiple characters.)

Shalu comes to return his feelings, but Nimmi also falls for Dev. And this is where the film takes a turn and starts to rework its formula in interesting ways. Warning: spoilers follow.

In the number "Mohabbat Dil Ka Sakoon" ("Love") Shalu, Nimmi, Dev and Sameer sing and dance of love; each thinks their love is being reciprocated, but both women are thinking about Dev, while both men are thinking about Shalu. (The love-song-with-mismatched-objects was also used effectively the following year in Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), coincidentally starring Preity.) The gap between Sameer's perception and the reality of Shalu's feelings becomes painfully clear in the next song, "Dil Hai Tumhaara." While Sameer sings "My heart is yours" to his fantasy Shalu (fetchingly dressed once again in silver lamé),


the real Shalu is singing the same words to Dev. (This song also features an amazing, 2-minute continuous take as the camera follows Dev and Shalu around the factory offices.)

The misunderstandings multiply when Dev sends a huge floral arrangement to Shalu's home, and Nimmi thinks it's for her. As Nimmi twirls in ecstasy, the camera focuses on Shalu's misery:


Shalu decides to give up Dev for her sister's happiness. Meanwhile, Sarita goes to Mr. Khanna to arrange Nimmi's marriage to Dev. Khanna-ji--who is fully aware of Dev and Shalu's growing love--is a bit surprised when he hears which daughter Sarita is speaking for:


But as she's leaving the Khanna's house, Sarita overhears Shalu and Dev in intimate conversation. She realizes that there's something between them, and later at home furiously spits out the truth of Shalu's parentage and her own undiminished bitterness. Sarita also angrily accuses Shalu of trying to seduce Dev away from Nimmi. (Rekha is amazing throughout this scene.) Once again, it's Nimmi who comforts Shalu:


Both Nimmi and Shalu are devastated by the evening's revelations. Later, alone in their bedroom, Nimmi asks Shalu if she's in love with Dev. Shalu, unable to bear hurting her sister, claims instead to be in love with Sameer. The next day, Sameer comes by the house with his ever-present puppet Rangeela, and Nimmi congratulates him on his good luck:


Sameer instantly makes plans to propose to Shalu. Meanwhile, Shalu has gone to Dev to urge him, for her sake (!), to marry Nimmi. She then visits Sameer and asks him to participate in the deception:


The situation is now so perverse that it's meta-perverse. Out of love for Nimmi, Shalu is sacrificing her love for Dev; and out of love for her, both Dev and Sameer agree to go along with her plan. Dev will pretend not to love Shalu so that he can pretend to love Nimmi, and Sameer will pretend not to love her so that he can pretend to love her. Sheer genius. The song that immediately follows, "O Sahiba" ("Oh my beloved") encapsulates the situation perfectly: Sameer, Shalu, and Dev sing the title phrase with anguish, while the heedless Nimmi sings it joyously.

Even Dev's father comes to understand what's happening: when he asks Shalu point-blank if she has ever loved Dev, she denies it. He isn't fooled for an instant:


and neither is the eavesdropping Sarita.

Everything comes to a head at the engagement of Dev and Nimmi in the song "Dil Laga Liya" ("I've given you my heart"), spectacularly choreographed (by Jojo and Raju Khan) and filmed (by director Kundan Shah). Throughout the movie, Sameer's puppet Rangeela--like all fools and clowns--has spoken the uncomfortable truth; now Shalu dances in the role of a puppet controlled by Sameer, and in the guise of performing a love song for the engaged couple sings achingly of the truth of her love for Dev. Of course Sameer, Dev, Mr. Khanna, and Sarita all understand the true import of her words; and Nimmi, noticing their reactions, begins to feel a bit uneasy...



"Dil Laga Liya" (music by Nadeem-Shravan; lyrics by Sameer; sung by Alka Yagnik and Udit Narayan) is an instant classic, ranking in my estimation with some of the greatest picturizations I've seen. (Note how Shalu-the-puppet magically "comes to life" when she emerges from the center of the Rajasthani dancers like a blossoming flower.) And in fact in last half of DHT, every element of the film--the script, the performances, the songs, the choreography, and Kundan Shah's fluid direction--builds inexorably towards that meaning-packed final song. Wah!

A final word in praise of Preity Zinta. Although she's gorgeous, she's not just another pretty face: she's a skillful, affecting, and adventurous actress who throughout her career has sought out unusual roles. In this film, she's the willful and rebellious (but good-hearted) illegitimate daughter Shalu. In Kya Kehna (1998/2000), also directed by Kundan Shah, and Salaam Namaste (2005), she plays women who become pregnant out of wedlock. In Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), she plays the daughter of a suicide, and in Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006), a divorcée. Her latest role is that of an immigrant bride who becomes a victim of domestic violence in the fourth film in Deepa Mehta's ground-breaking Elements tetralogy, Videsh: Heaven on Earth (2008). I think she's been underestimated as an actress; her powerful performance is certainly the main reason to watch Dil Hai Tumhaara.