Saturday, February 28, 2015

My Bohemian Valentine

 My Bohemian Valentine
            Valentine's Day was approaching.  I wanted to treat my Valentine, Maria Elena, to something unusual on this special day.  Candy and flowers were far too mundane and thus not worth considering.  So was a Vermont Teddy Bear!  Even having a star named after my Mare, with the added frill of it being recorded in something promoted as the 'International Star Registry', all for only $14.95, seemed overly commercial and lacked luster.  I feared trying to locate her star would be near impossible.  Looking up at the heavens some evening, through the cloudy swath of the Milky Way from our Calitri terrazzo, would be a needle in the haystack affair, even with the aid of their "here is how to find it" locater.  It would need to be a standalone star, something on the order of the North Star, but alas, this star already has a name.  A shooting star, now that would be something, but no doubt too difficult to schedule.  No, what I was being bombarded with on TV to get my special gal on this day were all a re-gifted rehash from years past.
            For a time we had considered getting away from the snow and flying to Paris for a week.  Even though it was winter there also, Paris is wonderful anytime.  We didn't need April in Paris, March would do just fine.  It was a far cry from the tropical climes of the Caribbean but we were certain they at least had less snow!  It was a good idea.  With fewer tourists to contend with and affordable prices this time of year, we could relax in a French Quarter boutique hotel, visit the Louvre day after day, wonder narrow streets, and of course enjoy wonderful food just about anywhere.  I was for it but Mare wouldn't let me press the "Enter" button on our computer.  Our sore backs, especially mine, though now healed, still concerned her.  All she could imagine was me getting laid-up, unable to walk, only this time not in Calitri, but Paris.  We would stay closer to home for a while.  Who knows, I might strengthen my lower back shoveling snow in a clime where unfortunately there are few therms in our thermometer!
            While an attic apartment in Paris' Latin Quarter was out of the question, at least for now, there might still be a way, if for only a brief few hours, to enjoy Paris' Latin Quarter.  We would, however, have to make do with a tiny, abysmal, one-room Paris garret in the 5th arrondissement.  For meals we'd have to settle for the Café Momus alongside a table occupied by the likes of poetic Rodolfo, Mimi the fragile seamstress and their equally poor Bohemian friends Marcello, a painter and his girlfriend, Musetta; Schaunard, a musician; and Colline, a philosopher.  If you haven't guessed by now, it would be a night at Puccini's ever-popular operatic performance of La Bohème.
            Neither of us had ever attended an opera.  Language and availability had always stopped us.  For our initiation, we wouldn't be going to the Metropolitan Opera in NYC, though that would have been fantastic.  Maybe someday we could work up to the Met.  At least for now we'd begin modestly.  Everything has a first time, so it was that on Valentine's Day we traveled to the smallish Palace Theater in Manchester, New Hampshire.  The historic Palace was built in 1914 and in its hay-day was home to visiting acts by Jimmy Durante, Bob Hope, Harry Houdini, The Marx Brothers and Red Skelton.  Today it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  What better venue than a historic theater to attend a still very popular and historic Italian opera first penned in the 1890s.  At least our baptism would be hosted in Italian, where some words would be familiar, although when voices turn to song, it is still sometimes difficult to understand, even if you happen to be fluent in the language.  In addition to Cliff Notes and the performers voices, we'd need to rely on the vocabulary of their expressive movements.
            Puccini, acclaimed as "the greatest composer of Italian opera, after Verdi", was one of nine children.  He was expected to replace his father, as his father had replaced his father, and so on, as maestro di cappella (choir music director) of the Cathedral of San Martino in Lucca, a position a family member had occupied for 124 years.  However, it was a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida in 1876, which Puccini attended in Pisa, that changed all that.  He was now convinced that his true vocation lay in opera.  As successful as he eventually became, he surprisingly came very close to being an unknown due to repeated failures.  He survived long enough to become a success only due to a steadfast sponsor, music publisher Giulio Ricordi.  Though Giulio was counseled to drop his support of Puccini after a series of operatic disasters, he inexplicably continued to back Puccini.  Giacomo achieved fame only because someone who was losing money on him still believed in his potential.  Their association remained steadfast even in difficult circumstances.  Following the death of his mother, for instance, Puccini fled from Lucca with his former piano student, Elvira Gemignani, even though at the time she was a married woman.  Their actions defied the norms of the day and precipitated an enormous scandal generated by their illegal union and the birth of a son.  Nonetheless, even under this strain, Puccini and Ricordi remained staunch friends. Their relationship, one the counselor and publisher, the other, operatic sensation, lasted their entire lives.  One can only suspect that without a morals clause in his contract, if he had a contract at all, a blind eye could be turned to Giacomo's lifestyle, so long as he remained successful.  And successful he'd become beginning with his two-act opera, Le Villi (The Fairies).  Puccini's mother received the following words by telegram on the night of its premiere at the Teatro dal Verme, Milan: "Theatre packed, immense success; anticipations exceeded; eighteen calls; finale of first act encored thrice".  He was on his way to building his reputation as the most promising composer of his generation.  It only makes you wonder how many unsuccessful, unsponsored, yet equally wonderful Italian composers, like Puccini, there may have been, who but for a stipend of mentor support, never got to write their breakthrough piece. 
         Puccini was born in December of 1858 in the lovely Tuscan city of Lucca.  We visited Lucca years back and walked its arrow shaped battlements, today transformed into a grand walking and bicycle trail.  We walked its flat labyrinth of streets and through Piazza dell' Anfiteatro.  This elliptical-shaped plaza follows the same perimeter of an ancient Roman amphitheater, once home to gladiators.  Heading toward the center of the city, all the while avoiding the bicycle traffic, we walked down Via di Poggio Seconda from the expansive Piazza San Michele.  In a short time we arrived at Casa Natale di Giacomo Puccini on adjacent Corte San Lorenzo.  Yes, you have it right, it's his birthplace where he lived until 1880 before moving to Milan to complete his studies.  It is hard to miss because a statue of Lucca's favorite son sits nearby (photo at start).  His full name, take a long breath, was Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini.  Doubtful there was ever enough room on any form to write it all out!  But write he did, with La Bohème standing out as one of his best. 
              La Bohèmemeans "The Bohemians". The French first referred to gypsies as bohemians. Soon afterward, the title was adopted to describe the starving artists of Paris during the nineteenth century. These particular Parisians were characterized by their vagabond lifestyle, for their ability to joke about their poverty, an un-regimented hand-to-mouth lifestyle without assured resources, and lack of worry about their tomorrow. Their situation was reminiscent of the biblical passage from Matthew: "... Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them ...". This social labeling came to characterize a stage in an artist's life, when without any means of support, beyond their art, they were forced to walk in the paths of Bohemia, similar to gypsies. They were energized by ambition and continually expected to break through and soon be "making it" in the world of their art at any moment. They knew both how to be frugal and how to be extravagant and could fit in nicely with squalor or luxury. Many, many years after Pucinni, Burt Bacharach wrote a song made famous by Dionne Warwick with the title, Do You Know the Way to San Jose. To me, it is remindful of this situation and comes close to characterizing the bohemians of our time when in his lyrics he said:
L.A. is a great big freeway
Put a hundred down and buy a car
In a week, maybe two, they'll make you a star
Weeks turn into years. How quick they pass
And all the stars that never were
Are parking cars and pumping gas
Even before Burt and Dionne, the CBS 1959 TV sitcom "Dobie Gillis" saw weekly sidekick and beatnik Maynard G. Krebs typify the modern day bohemian. Maynard, some of you may recall, was an unconventional free soul and an enthusiastic fan of jazz. His art was playing the bongo while faithfully staying clear of romance, authority figures, and above all, work. He rejected materialism, satisfied instead with just enough to get by, preferring in its place living for his art, free from conventional rules. Nice work if you can get it! Surprisingly, the Pulitzer Prize winning musical Rent is a modern retelling of La Bohème. Even the impoverished characters' names have something in common: Roger - Rodolfo, Mimi - Mimi, Mark - Marcello, Maureen - Musetta, Benny - landlord Benito and Collins - Colline. At various times throughout this rock musical, this linkage is reinforced when excerpts of the aria "Musetta's Waltz", from La Bohème's second act, are played.
           It was time to head for the Palace and take in all the emotion of La Bohème within its hallowed halls. Of course weather was an issue, with what else but snow in the forecast on Valentine's Day, lots of it. This was New England after all. For added insurance, we'd rely on our pick-up truck, with 4-wheel drive engaged to get us there. Not a very elegant Met-style arrival. Keeping with the truck motif, our attire never approached haute couture either. Instead I'd prefer to call it operatic mufti, with boots complimenting our parkas and scarves. In honor of this special occasion, however, I left my baseball cap behind and instead, wore my Italian beret!

            We left home early, in hope that with enough time, we could keep slightly ahead of the storm and allow time to treat Maria Elena to a Valentine's dinner before the opera. That dinner turned out to be less than I'd planned. Again, I'll blame it on the interference of weather. It amounting to simply grazing and noshing over a heaping mound of first-rate nachos with Shock Top beer chasers at a place I'll let you in on, Strange Brew. I'd brought along plenty of tissues, for while romantic in its theme, I knew it wasa moving love story ending in classic tragedy. I even included one on Mare's Valentine card that I presented to her as we ate. Secretly, I suspected that I'd also need some, lots in fact, in anticipation of being snared in a mood of compassion and pity for Mimi and Rodolfo, this memorably sad tale culminating in an emotive death aria.
            We had a touch of 'get-there-itis' that concluded when we ankled along through blowing snow to finally reach the Palace.  Just inside the doorway, we heralded our arrival by stomping our boots like a rambunctious troupe of Russian dancers.  It must have caught-on because practically everyone did it!  We had plenty of time to spare, so while waiting for the auditorium doors to open we purchased a sort of spill-proof sippy cup commemorating the Palace’s 100th anniversary.  Filled with wine, for an additional cost of course, they encouraged you to bring it with you on future performances, the idea of course to have them refilled.  Unfortunately, none of the available filler fluids they called wine were from anywhere even close to Italy - surely an oversight, especially when performing Puccini.  As we waited in the ticket office annex, we sat with some women whom I can only describe as clever in a dishonest way because, as they shared with us, whenever they returned, they did so with their sippy cups already filled.  Ingenious!
            We’d arrived without too much difficulty. Highways were still passable. Unfortunately, some of the "bus and truck" performers for our "one evening only" performance had not been so lucky.  All told, four players had not arrived because of the looming storm.  They were also key performers.  In my mind our substitute Rodolfo was no tenor.  Ever so gradually, almost imperceptibly, I'd been led to expect more when I'd previewed this opera on YouTube snippets of maestro Pavarotti in the lead as Rodolfo.  Truly foolhardy on my part to expect such a rich and luxurious shimmer in another voice.  In my estimation, with his limited range, our Rodolfo was closer to a male version of a mezzo-soprano or what is referred to as a countertenor.  His voice was high pitched and too easy for the orchestra to overpower.  Some sort of amplification would have helped both him and his audience greatly.
I do him injustice, however, because he came with fine credentials. In any case, this being my first opera, what did I know? I just couldn’t get out of my mind the image of how much he reminded me of Ricky Ricardo.  Yes, once again a flashback to my early TV days, this time to I Love Lucy. My feelings toward him also had to do with his co-star, also a substitute, the protagonist, Mimi.  She was beyond excellent in her dramatic portrayal, able to project her powerful voice unaided, but her Lucy-style scarlet red hair only reinforced my imaginings of a ‘Ricky’ Rodolfo. Truth be told, the entire cast, substitute stand-ins included, was an eclectic mix.  The original, though AWOL, Rodolfo was to have been Korean and Mimi, Puerto Rican.  The Korean, Mimi, Colline and Benoit gone missing, their replacements and the remainder of the cast were from Russia, Bulgaria, with many from Puerto Rico.  Reading what bios were available indicated that each had extensive training, operatic experience and lengthy repertoires.  Our substitute Mimi, for instance, the phenom Olga Orlovskaya, was very familiar with the operatic stage with a pedigree extending to her great-great grandfather, Russian bass-baritone Feodor Ivanovich Chaliapin.  Feodor, I learned, established the tradition of natural acting while performing opera by following his own advice to never do what the audience expected him to do.  All doubts aside, Maria Elena and I were in professional hands.

            An intense feeling of cold dominated the performance.  Here Puccini was writing from experience.  He sometimes himself couldn’t afford wood and coal for the little stoves of his own rooms.  What with a storm raging outside, cold hands, shivering, burning manuscripts for fuel, scarves, blowing on their hands along with hand muffs, blankets, fingerless gloves, and the slapping of arms for added circulation, only helped add an exterme sense of cold.  This may have been novel at a performance in Miami but not here in New Hampshire where there is so much snow that individuals less than five foot five aren’t allowed outside until Spring!  The improvised shivers of the Puerto Rican performers, what with the thought of a real snowstorm raging outside, may in fact have been real!  An ever present theme of poverty was also overwhelming.  A portion of one act centered on the foolery of avoiding paying the landlord three months back rent.  At other times food for the table was an unexpected luxury.  These starving bohemians possessed so little that to help prevent them from drowning in their despair, they adjust to their plight with joking antics attempting to veneer their privation, sharing what little they possessed, and in especially desperate times, by selling anything of value to survive.  In the final act for instance, Musetta sends Marcello off to sell her earrings and Colline, his overcoat, in order to buy medicine for Mimi, but alas too late.  This attention to the cold and poverty were likely excerpted from the reality of Puccini’s own life experiences.  Having experienced them himself, he deeply understood such social tragedy.  Only personal memories, backed by the humanity of his heart, could have inspired him to create such characters for this heartrending opera. 
            During the Act II scene of the soiree in Café Momus (once a real cafe located at 15 Rue du Prêtres, Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois), Mare leaned into me and commented how Italian this tease of a singing ruckus seemed.  Though situated in Paris, raffish Musetta’s flirting and back and forth antics with Marcello had for a moment transported Mare to a lively cafe reminiscent of just about any outdoor Italian cafe, again most likely some recollection of volcanic passion extracted from Puccini's own life.  Apparently he loved to horse around.  It happens again in Act III when the roommates invent silly dances and mimic a duel with a simple stick and broom-handle.  The stagecraft was equally simple.  But for some rudimentary changes between scenes, it remained basically static.  The shabby intimacy of the attic room, often used, was transformed in Act II, with the removal of some apartment furniture and the addition to a sign, into Café Momus.  With the addition of a tree, gate and lamppost in Act III, we were then transported to the city's customs gate.  To aid with understanding what was being said or sung, although a detailed understanding of what was taking place on the stage wasn't really necessary, English translations were projected on panels dangling above center stage, high up where the curtains terminated.  Before the production began, I'd been curious what these makeshift panels might be.  I for one appreciated it, though I'm equally sure some operatic establishment aficionados, no doubt with us in the audience, may have thought it condescending to their starched sensibilities.

           In the 1987 film, Moonstruck, Ronny Cammareri (Nicholas Cage) woos Loretta Castorini (Cher) by taking her to La Bohème at ‘the Met’. I tried a similar maneuver during a windy snowstorm by taking my Valentine to the Palace Theater in Manchester, New Hampshire! Everything about it had been memorable from the stormy weather to the multiple encores. Just as tears had washed Cher's cheeks, there were more than a few tearful eyes, mine included, as we stood to applaud in a crescendo of claps through multiple curtain calls - apparently even Puccini himself cried after composing the final scene of La Bohème. Though fundamentally touching, my inner critic, what there is of it, felt shortchanged, somewhat disappointed, only because this La Bohème had not been performed by its principle players. It nagged at my 'what might have been' imagination and only gave me reason to want to see it again. Ours had become an experience in the past tense in that we'd now, at least literally, "seen Pareé" and experienced classical opera for ourselves. The Palace had come a long way since its early burlesque days, while for Maria Elena and I our journey of discovery had only begun. In whetting our appetites, we'd succeeded in broadened our world view, enough reason to want to return. Like the motto of the US Postal Service, "neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds", we had been tested and unlike many others, had filled our 'appointed' seats that night despite the weather. As Mimi had expressed, we too wait for the thaw of Spring and like Rodolfo, as I patiently wait, Io scrivo (I write). The New England winter aside, we can take warming comfort in the thought that stillahead for us, beyond the pains of young love in an attic, yet lay the emotional awakenings of an exotic Aida, a warring Tosca, the court jester Rigoletto, the wistfully loneliness of Madame Butterfly and many, many, more. Bravo! Brava! 

From That Rogue Tourist