Your tiny hand is frozen? Not in this opera

Roll over, Puccini: Nick Kimberley celebrates the revival of the other 'La Bohÿme'
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The Independent Culture

Every opera fan knows La Bohÿme: that's the one with frozen garrets, starving bohemians and tubercular Mimi, "Your tiny hand is frozen" and all that. Puccini's opera is a cornerstone of the repertoire. But there's another La Bohÿme. It has the garret, the bohemians, and Mimi; but it doesn't have "Your tiny hand is frozen" or any of Puccini's other hit numbers. That's because it's by Ruggero Leoncavallo, who maintains a toehold on the repertoire with his I Pagliacci but is otherwise a name from the history books. And that is, by and large, where you'll find his La Bohÿme.

Every opera fan knows La Bohÿme: that's the one with frozen garrets, starving bohemians and tubercular Mimi, "Your tiny hand is frozen" and all that. Puccini's opera is a cornerstone of the repertoire. But there's another La Bohÿme. It has the garret, the bohemians, and Mimi; but it doesn't have "Your tiny hand is frozen" or any of Puccini's other hit numbers. That's because it's by Ruggero Leoncavallo, who maintains a toehold on the repertoire with his I Pagliacci but is otherwise a name from the history books. And that is, by and large, where you'll find his La Bohÿme.

Until now. As part of its low-budget, high-concept Italian Opera season, English National Opera is staging its first ever production of the alternative La Bohÿme. Given that in the 103 years since its premiere, Leoncavallo's version has been overshadowed by Puccini's, it may also be the company's last production of the opera, but things might have turned out very differently. In 1892, immediately after I Pagliacci brought him international success, Leoncavallo began work on a libretto based on Henri Murger's novel Scÿnes de la vie de Bohÿme, published 50 years earlier. Italian opera at the time was searching for greater realism, and Murger's Parisian bohemians offered a particularly picturesque kind of realism, including that sentimental sine qua non, a young woman who dies onstage.

Leoncavallo offered his libretto to Puccini, who rejected it, only to try to obtain exclusive rights to Murger's work for himself. He didn't succeed, but, undeterred, set to work on his own La Bohÿme. Leoncavallo, realising that he risked being left at the starting post, began composing his version. Puccini's La Bohÿme reached the stage first, in 1896; Leoncavallo limped in a distant second 15 months later. According to Tim Albery, who directs ENO's production, "The Leoncavallo may not sell as well as the Puccini, but I love it in part for what it isn't. There's no room for big arias, for example, which in terms of understanding the characters is really subtle. Musically it doesn't have the wholeness of the Puccini, who pushes all the right buttons at the right time, but when Leoncavallo has to turn it up emotionally, he succeeds pretty well, and I don't feel as manipulated as I sometimes do by that kind of music."

If the two operas tell essentially the same story, they find different ways to do so; and, Albery suggests, Leoncavallo's is not inferior: "You hear the same names: Rodolfo, Schaunard, Marcello, Colline, Musetta, Mimi; but the combinations they form, the accent that Leoncavallo places on the narrative, where the emotional and dramatic weight lies, all that is significantly different. It's truly an ensemble piece, there isn't one main character. Mimi is not the focal point that she is for Puccini. She and Rodolfo are already a couple at the beginning of the opera, we don't see them fall in love, they don't have a big duet. And Leoncavallo bravely refuses to prepare us for the tragedy of the second half; although Mimi is the trigger for the final catastrophe, she doesn't have TB until the last act. Up until then, there is nothing wrong with her. The first two acts are all sunshine: isn't being poor fun if you have the vitality to deal with it? In the second half, a morass of despair descends on the bohemians. Winter falls, they don't have any money, their relationships break up. The real world stakes its claim."

The Mimi in Albery's production is Sandra Ford, who has also sung Puccini's Mimi for ENO. Like Albery, she finds a depth in Leoncavallo not always apparent in his more famous rival: "In the Puccini, one doesn't get to know Mimi very well at all. We know that she's fragile, she loves making silk flowers, and she loves the spring, but Puccini's music is so wonderful that it masks the characters. Everybody waits for the wonderful tunes, we know what's coming. Leoncavallo is more down to earth, you get a stronger feeling of the hardness of their poverty. People will find the final act quite shocking. I shall be looking horrific, someone who's been on the streets, a whore in effect, in high-heeled shoes that are falling apart, wearing a tattered dress and a man's jacket. It's horrendous, whereas in the Puccini, the music obscures all that."

ENO's Italian Opera season has a unifying design concept by Stefanos Lazaridis that lowers the budget, and so allows the company to push into uncharted waters. For Tim Albery, that is enticing: "We know that this is an edge-of-the-repertoire piece. It's very unlikely that any opera company in the country is going to say, "Hey, let's throw a full production budget at Leoncavallo's Bohÿme." So this is a way of approaching an opera that nobody knows, apart from a few cognoscenti. For me, that's really fun, just to see how the piece works, which on its own terms it clearly does. Great opera or not, it actually adds up."

Leoncavallo's 'La Bohÿme': Coliseum, WC2 (020 7632 8300), Thursday to 1 December

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