‘La Boheme’ by Puccini: Runs to December 7 at SF Opera
Running time only 2 hours 20 minutes with one intermission
Two casts, Crocetto appearing Nov. 29, Dec. 3 and 7
‘La Boheme’ seems to be the one Puccini piece that doesn’t deserve to be lampooned for martyrdom although in that sense it’s no exception to the maudlin virtuous-woman-as-victim theme. Yet, the performances particularly of this San Francisco Opera cast, particularly Leah Crocetto as sweet Mimi, will make you remember what it is to be young and idealistic. Remember what it was to lead with your heart even as you must go with the flow of warm salty tears. I made the mistake of feeling a tad jaded and not even thinking of bringing my tissues to the Sunday matinee.
I did not underestimate Leah Crocetto’s talent, however. I had experienced this years ago at her Merola recital. She had me departing in astonishment and tears then too. That was her performing solo. Crocetto, with her stage presence, her senses of yearning and of comedy, should get a shot at Puccini’s comic piece Gianni Schicchi and Paulo Gavanelli. She looks Wagnerian but shows a heartbreaking fragility ala ‘La Traviata’, or a humility and open nature that’s Verdianesque. This ain’t no Cinderella story.
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Crocetto back then had just squeaked into the Merola competition for young opera prodegies, meaning under thirty and she just made the age cut off. She had grown up singing in her family’s Italian restaurant. So, she had the wryest sense of humor which she brought to her song selection and delivery particularly in a Spanish love song. She suddenly tries to snap her fist around an imaginary pest, a fly just out of reach, like love.
Crocetto holds her own solo but performs just as achingly in duets, in one of the two Bohemian casts. She sings with Giorgio Berrugi as the poet. The two singers complement each other physically while Crocetto plays the reclusive and sensitive seamstress who lives in a rooftop room in Paris in the mid 1800s Latin Quarter. Her character though alone creates flowers, the signs and symbols of love.
Mimi though alone lives in a building with apprentice artists including a painter and a poet. They are all in their early twenties so it’s a bit too early to tell if they will starve completely or suddenly have their poverty stricken lives change in an instant with a sale or some other stroke of financial success. These were not the street weary and aging, they had no loan sharks after them and when one of them faced death, they each run out into the street to sell some personal item to get money to comfort her. You know they would have sold their art if they could have at that point.
It starts with love at first sight and even in the dark. The poet and Mimi meet in the dark in the flat the poet shares with other starving artists. It’s winter and they have no heat or light other than each other and the modest candlelight. So, she drops her key in the dark, each of them dropping to their knees to grope about for it. They find each other. They find love. The poet sings how he squanders time like a lord and his creative freedom makes him feel like a millionaire. She sings how the first step to love is a kiss and the first kiss of spring is hers when the sun shines through her rooftop window where she lives alone, with moments of bliss.
David Farley’s set of paintings
The blissfulness of the setting comes largely from the set designer David Farley who surrounds the lovers with paintings. Nothing but big paintings and paint brushes. There are night-time paintings with light shining through a window making the interior look cozy. The artists can barely afford food let alone a candle though. Farley elaborates on this theme in Act II when the entire Parisian street scene is a collage of architectural paintings. Act I and Act II ostensibly take place at night or at the earliest as sunrise begins, where the distant sky begins to turn midnight blue instead of black.
It’s a very similar feeling to the elegance and decadence one feels in the French Quarter of New Orleans and specifically in the attic studio of painter and gypsy guitarist Tony Green. Paintings and works in progress on the expanse of attic wall; wooden frames hanging from the rafters. A skylight threatens to shatter in a tropical winter rain storm which bends the palm trees in the nunnery courtyard below. Paintings come from the expressive life outside on the streets, the French architecture, the dancing and parading Mardi Gras musicians. The creative feed each other’s soul. It’s not only real but a constant hustle.
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We’re not gonna pay: Rent.
What seems so appealing is how Crocetto plays it straight, not pretending to be idealistic or girlish, just honest and real, open. She is no hustler. No drug addict or alcoholic. Her character seems protected like Rapunzel in a tower, vulnerable and soft, not jaded or street tough as the drug addict in the film ‘Rent’. Several years ago the ‘Rent’ film director turned San Francisco’s South of Mission district a few blocks from the opera house into a New York slum. I worked as an extra driving my car through at night as New Year’s Eve fireworks lit the sky over the staged garbage bins and street people.
Kip Cranna gives some backstory
Kip Cranna gave a little insight into the backstory with his pre-opera talk, explaining that after Mimi’s death the artists ended their apprenceticeship starvation with some professional success. The painter sold a painting to a rich buyer. Puccini’s treatment of the book however never goes this far into the future resulting in more poignancy and a deeper sense of tragedy. Yet the writer of the book did not let her die in vain.
Student Debt Crisis and bursting the student loan bubble
The sobering point is that students and artisans to this day must suffer more than salad days. It’s for starters the unpaid internships where the student actually through tuition pays to work. If the student depends on school loans this sets the student up a lifetime of punishment and debt, with student loans being virtually non-dischargeable. It’s a trap with escalation of costs exacerbating the student loan crisis.
Restore consumer protection
However. U.C. Berkeley students just staged another occupation over tuition increases that have raised the cost in a public institution to over $15,000 in tuition a year. In my day, the late 1970s and early 80s, tuition cost about $800 a year. My grants and scholarships covered most of that. Yet, students who get trapped in trade schools or private schools have no recourse if they have grievances such as fraud or harassment or bullying. The school still gets paid, the loans go to the guarantor the federal government and the feds stalk and punish students for life, sometimes culminating in lawsuits even though bankruptcy courts deny discharge. Justice is blind because the federal courts and federal lenders hold the strings to the same purse.
Meanwhile. Activists and their families have been lobbying legislative representatives for changes toward more humanitarian laws governing student loans. Currently students are treated no better than tax evaders and child support dead beats, with the debt being non-dischargeable in bankruptcy. Senior citizens have their disability and social security retirement checks garnished. The federal government garnishes wages and revokes professional licenses.
Yet with the internet generation and grass roots communication and organizing, the exploitation by big banks and big government—the prime example being Sallie Mae—has been exposed. It’s no longer a dirty little secret, a private shame, a victimization of loan sharks that goes until death in misery and silence. Essentially activists fight back in the name of humanitarian interests and fairness by either protesting the Draconian and bogus costs to begin with and fighting for the reinstatement of consumer protection; or by acquiescing to the costs even of private schools but lobbying for the discharge of student loans by forgiveness.
A major point is not to be taken in by Obama’s forgiveness plan as it does nothing to address the problem of exploitation, it just condones and perpetuates the cruelty, dishonesty and greed. Do not be taken in by consolidation plans which just result in higher balances.
Related: Occupy Cal music, dancing, food; Occupy Cal free speech 2011; Occupy Cal creativity; Occupy Cal artists 2011; Occupy Cal general assembly meeting 2011
For more information: Student Loan Justice, Student Debt Crisis, San Francisco Opera, Occupy Colleges, Forbes magazine interview, Occupy Berkeley Facebook