Much Ado About Nothing:
PBS Airs New Production of
La Boheme

by Plato Hamburger, 
Drama Editor of The Peg's Bottom Gazette

A new production of La Boheme, the story of a French embroidery heroine lost in an Italian opera by Puccini (pronounced pooch-eenie) was aired on PBS Wednesday night March 28, 2001.  For those of you who were lucky enough not to tune in, and so are unfamiliar with the piece, it is, next to Days of our Lives and All My Children, one of the most beloved dramatic productions of our times.  It has one good song, in the saloon scene, as long as you don't know what the lyrics mean

When originally produced it was almost laughed off the European stage.  Its American introduction, about four years later, received something less than an enthusiastic reception, as is shown by comments from the dramatic reviewer in the New York Tribune, who referred to it as inconsequential, insignificant or possibly insipid.  I forget which.

All three are correct, in any event, yet it is now considered the most beloved of all operas.  How could such a work come to such heights from such low beginnings?  The answer is simple.  It didn't.  Culture and taste have descended so far during the intervening time that La Boheme now gets rave reviews.  Karl Marx was the catalyst, of course.  We can attribute all the cultural disintegration since the late Nineteenth Century to him. 

The story (or book, as it is sometimes called in musicals) is as follows.  A bunch of self-indulgent Robert Maplethorpe types once lived in a large European city.  Since in those days socialism hadn't yet taken over, art survived only by patronage -- which means handouts from the rich.  Thus, bad artists, unlike today, couldn't make a living.  Worst of all, large European cities at that time were overrun with people who didn't serve lunch and drinks for free.  Many landlords expected to get what is known as "rent" for the use of their apartments.  A shocking, capitalist situation.

Anyway, as the story opens we see bad artists singing boring lyrics about love.  Later, we see these same bad artists singing boring lyrics about love in a café where they are eating and drinking food and wine they don't have the money to pay for.  Later, yet, Mimi, the woman who makes a living sewing flowers, gets a cold and her artistic lover who didn't bother to marry her watches her die.  Bohemians to this day think marriage is bourgeois -- pronounced boo-zhwa, not boor-gee-oys -- which means middle class boring, as in people who work for a living, take care of their families and don't get drunk and vomit in the street every night. 

Are you following this?  Why is your head nodding as if you are falling asleep?  Do you want to get an invitation to a party thrown by Beverly Sills, or don't you?  Pay attention! 

There is a giant break in the story between the third and fourth act, or possibly the third and the fifth act if you include the missing act as an act even though it isn't there.  This ghostly sequence, had Puccini left it in, would have taken place in a courtyard full of furniture removed from a room whose rent hadn't been paid.  Nobody knows why Puccini cut out that section, since it explains critical plot elements that have puzzled audiences ever since.  Arguments by intelligent people counter such statements by saying the plot is so stupid that eliminating a great chunk of it is worth an increase in the ticket price.

Anyway, as the putative Act Three, or perhaps Act Four, opens the bohemians are painting walls instead of bad pictures.  Doing something useful has them depressed, so they sing boring lyrics about wishing to paint the sky, and about the pleasures of physical love with women who they don't have to marry.  Outside in the street, Mimi is coughing up her guts because she doesn't have any medicine.

Toward the end is a musical section called the vecchia zimarra.  Vecchia is Italian for old.  There is no direct translation for zimarra, although a variation of the word has to do with a coat worn by a rich person.  So this leads one to assume that the term refers to a second-hand coat from the Goodwill -- an "old coat once owned by a rich man."  In this application the coat has lots of pockets where bohemians can put their belongings after they have been thrown out for not paying their rent.  You can think of a vecchia zimarra as a song about an ancient artistic European supermarket shopping basket for street bums.  Rudolpho, Mimi's worthless lover, sells his vecchia zimarra to buy some medicine or something, which, since he can't pay his rent, makes him a homeless person, and takes it to her.

In the end, Thank God, the eternally smarmy Mimi dies so we don't have to listen to any of her juvenile lyrics any more.  Rudolpho survives her, but the opera ends about then, so we must only suffer through a couple stanzas of equally smarmy, self-pitying lyrics matched by Puccini's equally boring and atonal music. 

Finis Operatique La Boheme, may it rest in piece and stay there. 

The great promise in this new production is that it has been moved forward in time to the beginning of the First World War.  Some of the bohemians are dressed in uniforms of the period, and it leads one to hope that they will soon go off to fight the Germans, and with any luck get gassed in the trenches.  Sadly, however, some of them must have survived to breed more little bastard bohemians, since the opera survived WWI and is performed to this day.

Original Satire  © 2010 Oregon Magazine