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The ongoing texture of Puccini's orchestral writing mirrors the volatile vacancy of life's fleeting moments, if one discounts any sense of purpose, let alone ambition; the vocal parts are conversationally interlaced within the triviality of the words we, for most of the time, utter. This sounds like everyday routine because that is what it is and is meant to be; only routine proves to be merely a backcloth to the gut-wrenching and soul-stirring tunes in which normally inarticulate people surprisingly and surprisedly discover, in the context of volatile vacancy, that the commonness of the Big Tunes complements their uncommonly potent verisimilitude. If La Bohème is not the greatest, it is the most profoundly representative, of Puccini's operas: the reason being that his young Bohemians -- so called because they are gypsyish outsiders from a mythical Bohemia relocated in the purlieus of big cities -- central Paris around the Seine, New York's Greenwich Village, or London's Soho -- where, in Having a Good Time, they become victims of social oppressions and penury, to a degree consequent on their own inconsequentiality and irresponsibility. The villain is neither (as in Madame Butterfly) a moribund Old Japan or a brashly new America, but simply a God who allows young people -- would-be artists bemusedly creating they know not what, but at least, in hopefully creating, emulating God himself! -- to starve in garrets and to sink, rather than swim, in euphoric amnesia. This point was deftly made when Phyllida Lloyd updated the action of Puccini's and his librettists' adaptation of Henry Murger's novel from the 1830s to the late 1940s, in the wake of the Second World War.

By this time Bohemians were no longer a minority of young outsiders but a majority of young urban drop-outs, especially (rather than exceptionally) those from the less privileged classes. What destroys Madame Butterfly is the impact of an Old World (religious, magical, ancestor-ridden, butterfly impaling) on a New World (mercantile, mercenary, militaristic, butterfly-bashing). So the reasons for Butterfly's destruction are both palpable and indictable: whereas for Mimi la bohème social pressures, although they exist, are not the only, nor even the main, trigger to catastrophe. 'Poor Butterfly' is demolished by identifiable evils; poor Mimi is broken neither by wicked oppressors nor by her own timidity or bohemian frivolity, but simply and irremediably by her consuming consumption. There but for the grace of God might go we, lopped off by Aida or whatever our current scourge might be. Puccini offers no evidence for the efficacy of God's grace, I suspect because he thought there was scant chance of his displaying it.

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Copyright © 6 October 2001 Wilfrid Mellers, York, UK




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