Some time ago, I considered how a director might handle the first meeting of Don Jose and Carmen. Now I would like to do the same with the first meeting of Rodolfo and Mimi in Act I of Puccini’s “La Boheme.”
Those familiar with the opera’s source, Henri Murger’s “Scenes de la vie boheme,” know it to be a series of short stories, through which several main characters appear again and again as in a chemical reaction as they affect and are affected by one another. At least six of them were to appear in Puccini’s treatment of the tragic love between two of them.
In Murger, Mimi is no angel. Driven by the necessities of a life on the edge of starvation and the winter’s cold, she turns, as so many others like her, to the streets, always hoping to find a rich baron or banker who can show her the high life, even for a little while. Puccini’s librettists tried very hard to show her as the good girl with a heart of gold in contrast to Musetta, the whore with the heart of gold.
In the past, I have paid more attention to the music of Mimi’s autobiographical introduction, “Mi chiamano Mimi” than to the words. Poor darling, who does her best to scrape out the meanest existence in a pathetic way but who loves what bits of nature she can capture in her wretched apartment.
And then her candle blows out in the hallway outside the garret apartment of Rodolfo, Marcello, Colline, and Schaunard. (The last three are waiting for their poetic friend downstairs with, it would seem, a large degree of patience.) She timidly knocks on the door, Rodolfo opens it, sees her—and love at first sight.
Or is it?
As any good player knows, there is always a silent script that should be passing through an actor’s mind. Permit me to make one up for Mimi.
No rich man for me at present. Starving, freezing. Here’s a good looking young man. But as poor as I am, by the looks of him. Something is better than nothing; some one is better than no one. Just temporary. Let’s try.
She drops her key as if by accident, a candle blows out, they both search and their hands touch. Rodolfo thinks he is in charge and charms her with his autobiographical aria, “Che gelida manina.” In it, he boasts that all his dreams are castles in the air (“castelli in aria”). And he even goes so far as to call her two beautiful eyes thieves, because they stole from him his dreams but replaced them with hope. He has nothing to hide, but he has a very smooth line for a new pretty girl.
This gives her time to think. She must lie…but not too much of a lie. A little hint that she might not be quite what she seems to be. Maybe he knows this already, so be subtle.
“I call myself Mimi, but my name is Lucia,” she sings. Okay, everyone has a nickname in their social circle. She goes on to say that she is tranquil and happy with the small things in life—embroidery, making lilies and roses (false ones, if you get what I mean)—small things that talk of all the things that are called poetry.
Okay, young man, you are a poet, I am a lover of poetry. So much for the bait. Now for some selected bits of honesty.
She explains that she lives all alone in her tiny white room (the “white” has good connotations); but she is the first one to be kissed (good way to put it, keep it up) by the April sun. She seldom attends church. (Oh, he’s bound to find out sooner or later, so go ahead and say it.) But, alas, the flowers I make have no scent. (It’s all a fake, the song you sang to me, the song I sang to you, this meeting, the dropped key. Don’t expect too much, young man. Life isn’t like that.)
Of course, any actor will agree but argue that very little of this silent script can come through to an audience. Puccini’s music is nothing but sincere. How can any Mimi on a stage and having to sing the notes as written in tempos dictated by the conductor possibly bring any of this across?
Would it be too much to have her gaze lovingly at Rodolfo while singing one idea and turning away when the “all that glisters is not gold” idea is dominant? I leave this to future directors of “La Boheme” to consider. I have seen far too many productions that refused to depart from the love-at-first-sight staging and make Mimi into a less interesting character.