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Leoncavallo, Ruggero: La bohème
Act 1: Arietta, “Mimì Pinson, la biondinetta” (Musette)

Roger Pines, Dramaturg, Lyric Opera of Chicago
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Aria Talk1/1/2009

Editor's Note: Aria Talk focuses not on the tried-and-true pieces you undoubtedly already know, but on somewhat off-the-beaten-track arias. The hope is that this music will prove a refreshing musical and interpretive change not only for you, the performer, but also for those hearing you in auditions.
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Both lyric and dramatic mezzos have tried their hand at Puccini’s Musetta but why should they bother when there’s a Musetta already written for mezzos? Although Leoncavallo’s Bohème has always played second fiddle, this lesser-known version does have some marvelous solos that deserve greater popularity. One of them is Musette’s (that’s not a typo — the French version of the name with final “e” is retained).

Its brief duration makes it very useful if your audition time slot doesn’t allow you more than, say, six minutes for two arias. In character and style Musette presents a welcome change of pace from most mezzo fare. If you want to captivate your listeners with sheer charm, there’s nothing better in Italian, provided you’re a really full-toned lyric mezzo who’s also capable of a genuinely sparkling delivery. This version of the Bohemians’ story actually begins at the Café Momus! The four guys are there, along with Mimì and Eufemia (Schaunard’s mistress). Mimì has brought a friend, Musette, who’s a singer by profession. When Rodolfo asks for a song, Musette proposes one about Mimì herself. Colline and Schaunard interrupt to order some rabbit but they’re shushed by everyone else, then Musette begins: She sings about Mimì Pinson (yes, she has a last name in this opera!), a little slip of a blonde thing, with simple skirt and bonnet. But her hand is ready to be kissed and more than one nice-looking chap has done just that. Mimì likes to have fun and her smile can conquer a man’s heart. Sometimes, if she’s had a glass of wine, she’ll even sing her song — and at the end of supper, her bonnet may be slightly askew!

This is an adorably light-hearted number, bursting with the high spirits we know from Puccini’s incarnation of the character. The arietta needs exceptional sureness of pitch to master the coruscating phrases, colored as they are by unexpected leaps in the line (including a few delectable octave plunges down to low B). A super-appealing femininity can be communicated through each line but the piece only works if a real smile emerges in the tone throughout. For a bigger finish, try interpolating a high B into the final cadence — no doubt Leoncavallo wouldn’t have minded!

Score: Casa Musicale Sonzogno/Theodore Presser Company
Recording: Martha Senn in complete recording, Nuova Era # 7300/1; Anna di Stasio in complete recording, Hardy #6012; Alexandrina Milcheva in complete recording, Orfeo #C023822
Timing: 1:50
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