Just returned from a fascinating evening. The Opera Company of Philadelphia, in anticipation of its new season, invited last year's subscribers (including yours truly) to a rehearsal of this year's production of La Boheme (which opens on Oct 27th). It was a stage rehearsal - the performers were in street clothes, a piano filled in for the orchestra, and the performance, interrupted time and time again for retakes, only got as far as the end of Act Two. Still, the Impressionist inspired sets were on full display, and the music, though far from perfect, was pleasant.
It was a fairly chaotic rehearsal. Cues were missed, props fell apart, parts of the set went missing. The curtain came down too fast, went up too slowly. Backstage technicians conducted tests with the lighting while the principals sang, so that random light effects flitted about the stage like bats. At one point 'Rodolfo' broke off in the middle of a passionate aria to complain about the noise backstage. It was a rare insight into the raw, messy business of putting an opera performance together - the meticulousness, the detail, the split-second coordination - the kind of things that work so effortlessly on the night that you don't even notice them.
And yet. In the middle of all this confusion, there was that moment when a single spotlight picked out the frail form of a girl  on the darkened stage and a tentative ripple of notes prefigured a wounded bird of a voice singing 'Si mi chiamano Mimi'. And suddenly it didn't matter that Rodolfo was wearing sneakers or that you could see the technicians in the wings furiously taking notes - the trembling wistfulness of Puccini flooded the room, the aching beauty of the music that rose above the trappings of sets and costumes, like a dying girl breaking free of her sordid life.
The fact that it was La Boheme helped, of course. A similar rehearsal of, say, Aida would have seemed ridiculous; here, though, the stripped down quality of the scene gave Puccini's opera an authenticity, a realism, that more polished performances of it often lack. As though the unadorned setting was indeed Rodolfo's garret, and the constant back and forth of the rehearsal a metaphor for the artist's creative struggle. The entire experience, complete with an unseen director bellowing instructions over the sound system, was like being part of a Fellini movie, that is to say, part of that struggling, constructed fantasy that we call life.
 Of all opera parts, Mimi is the one that most cries out for frailty. One can imagine a Rubensesque Aida or a plump Suzanne (and the very name Brunhilde seems to demand a certain buxomness), but the very idea of a corpulent Mimi is grotesque.