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Simple Feelings, Powerful Drama: Puccini's 'La Boheme'

For a long time -- centuries, actually -- opera was dominated by larger-than-life characters: kings and queens, gods and goddesses, mythic figures with power over life and death. The challenge for composers and librettists was to give these legendary characters common feelings -- to put little sorrows in great souls -- so the ordinary humans who bought opera tickets could identify with the on stage dramas.

But as opera became a more and more popular form of entertainment, that changed. Composers turned to stories about simpler, more realistic characters, creating a whole new set of challenges in the process -- and nobody knew that better than Giacomo Puccini.

Puccini once said that his success came from putting "great sorrows in little souls." His operas tell us that at some point in their lives, people everywhere, in all walks of life, endure the same trials: love and envy, loss and heartbreak. That's especially true in La Boheme, a story set among struggling artists in the Latin Quarter of Paris.

Boheme is a drama of everyday events and common people. The characters are familiar, maybe even routine. The same is true of many other Puccini operas, which may be why the composer has always had his detractors. Certain critics have analyzed his music and his stories and concluded that his operas are too easily enjoyable, and maybe not intellectual enough, to justify Puccini's great success. And it would be easy to argue that composers such as Mozart, Verdi and Wagner all produced operas far more complex and innovative than Puccini's -- great operas that work on so many levels that they both invite analysis, and defy it. By comparison, some say, Puccini's dramas seem overly simple and straightforward.

But that conclusion itself may also be too simple. Regardless of his methods, Puccini mastered the unique and mystifying synthesis of music, drama and stagecraft that only opera can deliver, and with powerful results. His enduring, popular dramas are graced by appealing and believable characters whose feelings are portrayed so deeply and so vividly that, as we look on, their emotions soon become ours as well, and their heartbreaks seem as wrenching as our own.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents a production of La Boheme, from Vienna, that produced a real life drama for one of its lead singers, the young American tenor Stephen Costello. The acclaimed tenor Rolando Villazon had been scheduled to star in the role of Rodolfo, but persistent vocal problems forced him to withdraw. Costello, a Philadelphia native and winner of the 2009 Richard Tucker Award, was called in on short notice and sang on opening night to enthusiastic ovations, making his Vienna State Opera debut alongside soprano Krassimira Stoyanova as Mimi.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bruce Scott
Bruce Scott is supervising producer of World of Opera. He also produces NPR's long-running, annual special Chanukah Lights, with Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz.