A Little Bit of Pavorotti and a Lot of ‘La Bohème’

YouTube for opera lovers
April 17, 2020 Updated: April 17, 2020

Imagine opening night. You’re sitting on a plush red chair and looking out at a gilded stage in a stunning Italian opera house. Suddenly the auditorium goes silent as the orchestra begins to play the intoxicating overture from Giacomo Puccini’s “La Bohème.” A stranger walks out on stage. He has a large frame with the face of a cherub. You’ve never seen or heard him before. You think he’s just another new tenor who has been given a chance to sing in the Teatro Comunale in Modena, Italy. There are so many operas playing in Italy all the time that you have no reason to believe this production will be any different than anything you’ve heard before.

But then the tenor, playing the part of the struggling artist Rodolfo, begins to sing. It’s an electrifying voice, a voice that hits high notes like you’ve never heard before. It’s a voice you know you’ll never forget, and it’s a voice that startles you and others in the audience of the Teatro Comunale.

Then it goes on to stun the world.

On May 4, 1961, Luciano Pavarotti, then the fresh winner of the Achille Peri Competition in Reggio Emilia, walked out for the first time onto the stage of the Teatro Comunale in the role of Rodolfo in “La Bohème.”

Indeed, the Teatro Comunale is proud that it gave its native son his big chance. After all, Pavarotti was born in Modena (Oct. 12, 1935) and spent his formative singing years in the city as a school teacher, and died (Sept. 6, 2007) in that same city of his birth.

It’s still possible to hear what that voice sounded like when Pavarotti sang, that first time, “Che Gelida Manina.” Go to “Luciano Pavarotti – La Bohème 1961 debut” on YouTube.

pavarotti debut la boheme
Luciano Pavarotti in his debut performance in “La Bohème” at the Teatro Comunale. (Teatro Comunale Luciano Pavarotti)

The opera company, now called the Teatro Comunale Luciano Pavarotti, celebrated its relationship with the legendary tenor by opening last year’s season with a live streaming of “La Bohème” on Oct. 11 and 13, 2019.

Love at First Hearing: ‘La Bohème’

“La Bohème,” written by Puccini around 1893, was based on Henri Murger’s novel “Scènes de la vie de bohème.” The Teatro Comunale’s revived production for 2019 features Puccini’s ravishing musical score and is a faithful remounting of the story that revolves around a series of struggling bohemian artists trying to survive in the Latin Quarter of 1830s Paris.

The opera opens on an impoverished garret in which snowflakes can be seen falling outside the window. The destitute poet Rodolfo is burning pages of his play in order to keep warm, when he’s interrupted by a knock on the door. It’s his neighbor, a young woman named Mimì whom he has never met before. Her candle has blown out, and she asks Rodolfo if he has some matches to relight it. It’s love at first sight as Rodolfo invites her to come in. Their eyes lock and their hands touch as he lights her candle.

We know they are doomed, but we can’t resist a great love or the most seductive music in the pantheon of opera. We’re not the only ones who find “La Bohème” irresistible. Indeed, this opera has been revived by more opera companies around the world than any other. It’s so well-loved that the 1987 movie “Moonstruck” used the Puccini music throughout, and the highlight scene of the film follows the two impossible lovers to “La Bohème” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Furthermore, Jonathan Larson based his 1996 musical “Rent” on “La Bohème.” Instead of Mimì dying from consumption, as she does in the opera, in Larson’s musical, she suffers from AIDS. And instead of Puccini’s spine-tingling music, the musical score is filled with pop-style songs.

Watch the 2019 Production

Teatro Comunale’s revival of the opera in 2019 is faithful to Puccini’s intent, although we can’t help but wish we could have been present to witness the great Pavarotti step onto the opera stage for his debut performance. But, we can still catch the revival of the opera in its entirety at “Giacomo Puccini LA BOHÈME – OPERA LIVE STREAMING” on YouTube.

That broadcast will be more than worth one’s time. Puccini was a perfectionist, and the revival reflects the composer’s attention to detail so that nothing in the production is superfluous to the story.

Moreover, in the roles of the young lovers, Rodolfo and Mimì, Matteo Desole and Maria Teresa Leva have great chemistry, which is why we find their tragic love so compelling—to the point of tears. And while Desole’s high C’s are not those of the famous Pavarotti, he does deliver a rich tenor that goes well with Leva’s soprano, and he gives a standout rendition of “O Suave Fanciulla.”

If opera lovers are suffering from withdrawal because of the pandemic lockdown and miss the passion, the romance, the excitement, and the drama of great opera, check out YouTube and mine its treasures.

As an arts writer and movie/theater/opera critic, Betty Mohr has been published in the Chicago Sun-Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Australian, The Dramatist, the SouthtownStar, the Post Tribune, The Herald News, The Globe and Mail in Toronto, and other publications.