By Phil Hall | February 21, 2003

Contrary to the critics’ grumbling, opera and cinema are not incompatible. The rarely seen 1965 film adaptation of Puccini’s “La Boheme,” which is now having its DVD debut, is among the best film adaptations of an opera. With the combined talents of Franco Zeffirelli and Herbert von Karajan behind the camera and the superb talents of La Scala on screen, “La Boheme” is the rare film which can break down the resistance of even the most rabid opera-haters.

Part of the problem in filming opera is the fact that opera is a heavily theatrical medium. Many televised operas are little more than filmed records of theatrical presentations, with the camera magnifying excesses that would not be apparent to those in attendance within the theater. Opera stars also have a tendency to be fairly mature and (to be diplomatic) physically robust, and even the most imaginative cinematographer will have an extraordinary challenge trying to create the illusion of youth and Bowflex-inspired physiques with such performers.

With this film version of “La Boheme,” it is fairly obvious that Mirella Freni and Gianni Raimondi are physically incompatible for the requirements of their roles as Mimi and Rodolfo; both are a good decade too old and more than a few pounds removed from the twentysomethings who never know when their next meal will come. Yet is to their credit as gifted actors that they overcome this obstacle with strong, in-depth cinematic performances. Raimondi brilliantly captures the youthful energy of Rodolfo, whether happily burning his unpublished poetry to keep the fire going in his apartment or falling for Mimi with a dramatic passion that rarely appears beyond one’s initial exposure to pure love. Raimondi captures the spirit of youth better than many young actors could ever hope to accomplish.

Likewise, Freni’s Mimi is a marvel of intense understatement. In her slow and measured movements, beginning with her apologetic appearance to seek a light for her extinguished candle through the tragic conclusion when her failing health expires her life, she conveys the pain and suffering of Mimi’s bleak existence with heart-shattering precision. Freni, under Zeffirelli’s marvelous direction, abstains from operatic-style emoting and instead mirrors her character’s emotional and physical turmoil with the serenity of one who can no longer fight and who is ready to accept the inevitable. By the time she reaches her third act aria “Farewell, May You Be Happy,” it is nearly impossible to consider her performance with dry tear ducts.

While “La Boheme” is not regarded as a comedy, this production has one of the most astonishing and wonderfully funny sequences in the Cafe Momus scene when the gold-digging hussy Musetta, played by Adriana Martino, arrives with her latest elderly beau. Martino takes over the film for this scene, calling attention to her dazzling glamour and her rich comic timing as she shamelessly sets herself up as the cafe’s center of attention while duping her aged boyfriend to cover the bills for all of her starving-artist friends who wine and dine in her glow. Farce was never Zeffirelli’s forte as a director (the shortcomings of his 1967 “Taming of the Shrew” can be blamed on the miscast self-indulgent performances of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor), but at the Cafe Momus Zeffirelli created a joyously lunatic atmosphere.

Of course, this sequence is followed by the Gates of Paris sequence, where the severity of Mimi’s failing health and the depth of her love for Rodolfo is revealed on a snowy morning. The emotional snap between the intoxicating gaiety of the cafe and wintry calm where Mimi comes to terms with her fate is riveting, and the visual artistry of the film (with credit due to Werner Krein’s beautiful Technicolor cinematography and Zeffirelli’s tasteful production design) tastefully frames the glory of Puccini’s timeless music in reflecting Mimi’s heart and soul.

Many people, when asked about opera, abruptly blurt out how much they hate it. Of course, many of these same people probably never saw an opera from overture to finale (and the Bugs Bunny parodies don’t count, thank you). For these people, I offer the challenge of visiting this production of “La Boheme” on DVD. As an introduction to opera, not to mention as a marvelous work of cinematic art, “La Boheme” is a deeply rewarding experience.

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