Wednesday, February 21 , 2018, 5:37 am | Fair 39º


Gerald Carpenter: Opera Santa Barbara Presents ‘La Bohème’

Perennial favorite comes to The Granada on Friday and Sunday

Opera Santa Barbara opens its 2011-2012 season this weekend with an all-time audience favorite, La Bohème, with music by Giacomo Puccini, and a libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, based on the book, Scènes de la vie de bohème, by Henri Murger.

The original 1896 'La Bohème' poster by Adolfo Hohenstein.
The original 1896 “La Bohème” poster by Adolfo Hohenstein.

The production, sponsored by the Mosher Foundation and the Elaine F. Stepanek Foundation, will be conducted by Dean Williamson, with stage direction by Brad Dalton and sets by Erhard Rom.

Christopher Bengochea will star as Rodolfo, Rebecca Davis as Mimì, Malcolm MacKenzie as Marcello, and Jan Cornelius as Musetta. Also starring will be Gabriel Vamvulescu, Steven LaBrie, Jesse Merlin, Ernest Alvarez, and the Santa Barbara Children’s Chorus.

The publicity for a recent production of Carmen in the Pacific Northwest calls it “the world’s most popular opera.” This got me thinking, because, if you were to ask me, I would say that La Bohème was the music drama that most opera lovers would be willing to pay to hear — if they had to choose only one. Maybe, if your measure is most productions or most performances, then Carmen, which has a 22-year edge on La Bohème, might still lead the field. But if you were to take a poll today, I’m sure the latter would leave all other operas in the dust.

If we then ask: Why is La Bohème so universally beloved? The answer must mainly have to do with Puccini’s music and its uncanny ability to directly address, and awaken, the dormant passions of the audience. It is the archetypal modern opera, the unimprovable condensation of romantic fatalism. But part of its enduring popularity, like that of Carmen, must also be due to the fact that its characters are quite low on the social scale. Carmen works in a cigarette factory; Mimi makes artificial flowers. The gods and goddesses, the monarchs and aristocrats and exotic locales, of 18th-century opera, are as vanished as the powdered wig and knee breeches. We might not care to hang out with these beatniks — risking infestation with fleas and lice, not to mention communicable diseases — but we certainly recognize them as inhabitants of the same world we were born into, with the same emotions as our own.

“What on earth,” asks Lord Clark, “has given opera its prestige in western civilization — a prestige that has outlasted so many different fashions and ways of thought? Why are people prepared to sit silently for three hours listening to a performance of which they do not understand a word and of which they very seldom know the plot? Why do quite small towns all over Germany and Italy still devote a large portion of their budgets to this irrational entertainment? Partly, of course, because it is a display of skill, like a football match. But chiefly, I think, because it is irrational. ‘What is too silly to be said may be sung’ — well, yes; but what is too subtle to be said, or too deeply felt, or too revealing or too mysterious — these things can also be sung and only be sung ...”

Clark goes on to talk of Don Giovanni, but the core of what he says applies, without modification, even more forcefully to La Bohème, and all of Puccini — especially when he speaks of what is “too deeply felt, or too revealing” to be said. (Though, I hasten to add, La Bohème is nothing like three hours long.)

La Bohème plays in The Granada, 1214 State St., at 7.30 p.m. Friday and at 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $28-$188. To purchase single tickets, call the Granada Box Office at 805.899.2222, or click here to purchase tickets online.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer.

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