Puccini in love

The Cairo Opera’s production of La Bohème, one of Puccini’s greatest operas, makes audiences fall in love with the piece once again.

Published in Al Ahram Weekly

“When we fall in love, we hear Puccini in our heads. His music expresses our need for passion and romantic love,” says Rose Morgan, played by Barbra Streisand, in the 1996 film The Mirror has Two Faces.

Puccini was already a renowned composer when his opera La Bohème, conducted by the young Arturo Toscanini, premiered in Turin in 1896. The opera has immediately gained audiences’ hearts, and over 100 years later it continues to be one of the most beloved of Puccini’s operas. Love, pain and joy are elements that any audience easily relates to.

With a libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa based on Murger’s Scènes de la vie de bohème, as the title indicates this consisted of separate scenes, realistic sketches, depicting Bohemian life without one clear dramaturgical line. Murger’s scene 18 provides the skeleton of Puccini’s opera.

An opening staccato theme played in 3/8 reveals a garret, with Rodolfo looking out of the window and Marcello working on his painting The Passage of the Red Sea. It’s Christmas Eve, and everything is covered with snow. From the first note, the Cairo Opera Orchestra conducted by Nader Abbassi beautifully walked us into the story where music takes a conversational style and introduces two intertwined motifs, instrumental and vocal.

The first is borrowed from an earlier work by Puccini, Capriccio sinfonico (1883), and is associated with Bohemian life and Marcello. The second theme, sung by Rodolfo to the words “Nei cieli bigi…” (Thick grey smoke from a thousand Parisian chimneys, rise up into the skies), originates from sketches to La Lupa. The music is full of gaiety and introduces us to the light-spirited mood of the pair. However, behind them lies the tough life of the Bohemian characters, while all the profound emotional experiences are yet to come.

Soon, we realise that the youthful joy of the Bohemian men cannot draw us away from the dramaturgical climax of La Bohème, which revolves around Mimi’s illness and death. Four acts form an emotionally stimulating and romantic story, with Mimi (a seamstress and soprano), Rodolfo (a poet and tenor), Musetta (a singer and soprano) and Marcello (a painter and baritone) all seemingly happy, yet constantly reminded of a harsh reality.

The sentimental love of Mimi and Rodolfo is contrasted with a playful and quick-tempered relationship between Musetta and Marcello. Careless and rather coquettish fun is penetrated by winter frost and poverty, and this paves the way for the tragic, yet anticipated, end.

In addition to its great music, La Bohème is superb material for an enriching theatrical experience. With the characters so exquisitely designated, in the opera we neither find accidental scenes nor unneeded dialogue. Throughout the libretto, we gain insight not only into the discourse between the four characters, but also into their thoughts and feelings.

In Act 3, Rodolfo reveals his difficult position to Marcello, as he is lost between love and an inability to provide for Mimi. He sings, “I love her dearly, but I’m frightened, I’m so very frightened! […] the remorse is killing me!” In this painful and melancholic confession, Puccini uses minor chords with dissonances that are set against clear vocal lines in an almost elegy-like tone. Here again, the orchestra brilliantly stressed the emotional crux of this scene.

Moustafa Mohamed surprised us with his rich timbre and seemingly effortless projection. He perfectly inhabited the character of Marcello, and his direct vocalism carried over the orchestra, becoming a highlight of the evening, from the first line of Act 1 (addressed to Rodolfo) to his final word “Courage!” from the end of Act 4 after Mimi dies. His variety of colours was showcased in many parts of the opera, being a voice of reason in Act 3 and carrying consolation and advice to Mimi, and shifting to an energetic and effervescent quarrel with Musetta a few moments later.

In spite of Fabian Robles’s accuracy in the role of Rodolfo, his voice seemed to be challenged by orchestral elements covering his interesting, yet not always audible, vocal texture. In the Act 4 aria “Ah, Mim”, tu piç non torni” (Oh, Mim” will you never return?), he created an expressive dialogue with Marcello about their absent sweethearts against a backdrop of softer music.

Each of the four friends has a unique psychological structure, whilst the two women characters are especially contrasting. Mimi (Mona Rafla), with her lyrical attitude, carries death as her birthmark, while Musetta (Neveen Allouba) bubbles with life and temperament.

Rafla has agreeable acting abilities, enough to capture Mimi’s role from the very first aria “Si mi chiamano Mim”” (Yes, they always called me Mimi), played hesitatingly by the clarinets and then joined by the violins, to her final deathbed scene. Perhaps at times Rafla was too cautious in using her melodious and strong voice, but even so her controlled presence expressed the spontaneous tenderness and elegance needed for the role. Rafla’s obvious vocal gleam highlighted the passionate vulnerability of Puccini’s character. Undoubtedly, Rafla is a charming artist and one validated by the role of Mimi.

Not only is Musetta a contrast with Mimi, but she is also full of contrasts in herself. Neveen Allouba’s strongest point is her stage presence, which is among many opportunities given by Puccini to the singer playing the role. More than her vocal qualities, Allouba’s characterisation of the role cannot be overlooked. “Musetta is enjoying life,” Marcello comments in Act 4, and so she is.

Her loud and tempestuous aria “Quando me’n v˜” (also known as Musetta’s Waltz) showed Allouba’s comic aptitude, as she put strong artistic expressivity above beauty, hence giving a new dimension to the role. (The waltz melody recurs in truncated form in Act 3, sung off-stage.) Musetta then regains her composure and reveals a profound care mixed with fear once she’s faced by Mimi’s approaching death.

With a simplicity of dramatic build-up and contrasting characters, everything is deeply implicated with the music, and Puccini’s charming melodic style, graceful arias and captivating orchestration can be praised ad infinitum. “Che gelida manina” (This little hand is frozen), Rodolfo’s aria from Act 1, is one of the most beautiful and touching Puccini arias. Musically, Puccini stresses the love theme in this aria, as it returns on several occasions.

Its thematic origin goes back to Murger’s scene 18, mentioning the heroine’s cold hands. In La Bohème, hands became a symbolic element reminding us of Mimi’s illness and stimulating several musical parts. The last words sung by Mimi are, “My hands… in the warm… and… to sleep…,” followed by the ominous long trumpet note in the background, stating her death.

Mimi and Rodolfo and Musetta and Marcello are the four protagonists. Other characters are also perfectly drawn, yet their roles are limited to smaller singing parts, and they are supportive characters in the dramaturgy. Schaunard (Emad Adel) and Colline (Abdel Wahab Sayed) are friends sharing the same Bohemian spirit, while Benoit (Ramez Labad), the landlord, serves as a reminder of the artists’ poverty and a tool turning misery into a comic scene in Act 1.

The dramaturgical material of La Bohème almost pleads for a theatrical vision that can serve its contrasting characters and thematic colours, as lead by the astounding music. A mise-en-scène that serves the music has excellent contributions to make regarding creativity and artistic expression. Mohamed Abou El-Kheir, the director, did not disappoint us in this regard, efficiently drawing many scenes and capturing the thematic and musical dialogue.

Abou El-Kheir started his career as a tenor, before concentrating on directing, and his work has included productions with several directors in the field of ballet and opera, while his work on the opera Miramar brought him a State Merit Award in the field of theatre directing in 2008.

Act I with the Bohemians in the garret, Act 2 in the Café Momus, and Mimi’s death scene in Act 4 are only a few examples of where the music, singers and mise-en-scène blended into expressive pictures able to touch the spectators. Abou El-Kheir managed to emphasise the acting abilities of the artists, while using voice as their primary medium of expression, thus turning the opera into an engaging experience.

Likewise, the group scenes (especially the street scene in Act 2), were well controlled in spite of the number of artists on stage. More static scenes showed the director’s individual touches, such as the clear visual contrast created in Act 3 with Mimi and Rodolfo at opposite ends of the stage discussing their separation.

Yet, it was in Act 3 in which Abou El-Kheir’s presence was most significant. Here, the music introduces a cold February dawn, with fortissimo staccato and tremolo on strings, harp and flute depicting snow flakes. “At intervals comes shouting and the clinking of glasses” from the nearby tavern, we read in the libretto. Abou El-Kheir added a silent, shivering and lonely figure (Hala Imam), who, in her soft movements, depicted a misery that was the equal or maybe even greater than that of Mimi. Hala returned at the end of Act 3, giving closure to this emotionally charged act.

Possibly more than in any other opera, in La Bohème Puccini took particular care of the details, each word, each gesture and each scene remaining in perfect symbiosis with the music and strengthening its dramatic elements. The role of the Cairo Opera Orchestra conducted by Abbassi cannot be omitted here, as the orchestra successfully transmitted Puccini’s power over consecutive scenes.

When joined by the obvious theatrical effort from the director and the singers, La Bohème makes one rejoice in the opera, and at the same time fall in love with the theatre once again.


Puccini, La Boheme, Cairo Opera Orchestra, Cairo Opera Choir, director: Nader Abbasi, Cairo Opera House Main Hall, 15-18 Dec

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