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Seattle Opera ends its season with the all-time favorite "La Boheme," opening at McCaw Hall on May 5. Originally scheduled for 10 performances, the run was expanded by two performances in response to popular demand.

Puccini's opera was first performed in Italy on Feb. 1, 1896. Over the years, from 1965 to 1998, Seattle Opera has presented six highly successful productions of it. I attended all of them, entertained international VIPs, celebrated special occasions and introduced students and newcomers to the joys of opera.

Yes, I have many fond memories of "La Boheme"-dancing on the stage and dinner with the stars in the foyer of the old opera house. Ah me, so much for nostalgia.

I am eagerly looking forward to the 2007 production. Puccini's lush melodies and the tender love story have inspired such contemporary shows as "Rent" and the recent Baz Luhrmann Broadway production. Seattle Opera's production uses the traditional 19th-century Parisian setting with the beautifully detailed period costumes of Tony-winning designer Martin Pakledinez.

A critic once remarked of "La Boheme": "Is anything more poignant than youth and love and tuberculosis?" Chances are he was being quite serious; most opera lovers might ask the same question. Of all the Puccini works, "La Boheme" remains the public's favorite; even given a cast with barely a pretense to competence, the opera sells. The universal appeal can be understood-and never laughed off or explained away, even by Puccini's most avid detractors.

What man has never dreamed of a knock on a door, followed by a floating "Scusi," as in Mimi's entrance? Or what woman has never imagined what it would be like to be told that her hands are cold, the way Rodolfo does in his great aria? Few people have visited Paris' St. Germain district without seeing a garret and thinking Rodolfo and Mimi might have lived and loved there. To anyone ashamed of sentiment, there is nothing quite like the doomed love of two people who can live neither with nor without each other.

The popularity and acceptance of "La Boheme" today is a far cry from its reception in New York as its Metropolitan première Dec. 26, 1900. Henry Krehbiel of the Tribune spoke of Mimi as "foul" and the music as "futile." There were shocked sensibilities in general, although Melba and Saleza were a vocally sumptuous pair of lovers. The soprano indeed went on singing Mimi so late in her career that Puccini was outraged; he always wanted youth in his bohemians. Despite the prudes at the music desks, the opera's success was assured, and it has been absent from the repertory of the Metropolitan only two seasons in 60 years.

"Aida" may lead most operas in number of performances, but very likely "Boheme" has been seen more times by the average opera-goer than any other piece. Mary Garden once said of performing Louise that she was often bored with the idea of singing the role again, but the boredom disappeared once the curtain went up.

Sophisticates may groan at the idea of "another 'Boheme'," but by the time the orchestra breathes Mimi's first exquisite theme, they capitulate: the music of young love has worked its miraculous magic once more. Put in another way, an opera official remarked he would look for another job when Mimi's farewell in the third act failed to bring tears to his eyes. How is this mesmerizing appeal explained? Puccini knew the heart and the joy and the pain that could be there; he expressed it as only an Italian could, with the vigor and warmth of endless melody.

The first act is set in a Latin Quarter garret. A poet, Rodolfo, and a painter, Marcello, are joined by their friends Schaunard and Colline on Christmas Eve. The group cheats its landlord of his rent and goes off to the Café Momus to celebrate. Rodolfo stays behind to write but is interrupted by a knock on the door. It is Mimi, a neighbor whose candle has gone out. The girl has a fainting spell and comes inside to rest. She loses her key, and she and Rodolfo search the floor. They touch in the darkness, and Rodolfo, holding Mimi's hand, sings the famous aria "Your Tiny Hand Is Frozen" and tells her about his life as a poet. She in turn tells him of her own life as a seamstress. As his friends call from outside, the two declare their love and go off to join the others.

Act II is in front of the Café Momus. Musetta, a former love of Marcello's, arrives with the old Alcindoro. She and Marcello, though quarreling constantly, are still in love. Musetta sings a waltz song to get the painter's attention, and when she succeeds, she gets rid of Alcindoro by pretending that her shoe needs repairing. She and Marcello are reunited and all the bohemians go off, leaving the check for the old man.

The third act is before a tavern on the outskirts of Paris. Mimi and Rodolfo's idyll is almost over because of jealousy and suspicions; Rodolfo is plagued with guilt because he blames their poverty on Mimi's growing illness. The girl comes to say goodbye, but Rodolfo recalls sweet memories of their love and the two resolve to stay together until the spring. Their lovely song is punctuated by the quarreling of Musetta and Marcello as the curtain falls.

In the last act, Rodolfo and Marcello are back in their garret, separated from their sweethearts. They pretend not to care and try to work, but their thoughts soon go back to the women they love. Schaunard and Colline join them with some newfound money, but the forced gaiety is interrupted when Musetta bursts in with Mimi, who is dying. They attempt to make her comfortable, and Colline goes out to sell his overcoat and Musetta's earrings to buy medicine. Left alone, Mimi and Rodolfo reaffirm their love; as they reminisce, she drifts off quietly to sleep. The others return; Rodolfo thinks Mimi is better, but Schaunard sees the girl is dead. Rodolfo reads the truth in their faces and falls sobbing over the body. The curtain falls with not a dry eye in the house!

The conductor for the upcoming 2007 production is Vjekoslav Sutej and the director is Jose Maria Condemi. The sets are courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Rodolfo will be sung by Rosario La Spina and alternate Scott Piper; Mimi, by Nuccia Focile and Gun-Brit Barkmin; Marcello, Philip Cutlip and Michael Todd Simpson; Colline, Deyan Vatchkov and Ashraf Sewailam; Schaunard, Jeremy Kelly and Marcus Deloach; Musetta, Karen Driscoll and Margarita de Arellano; Benoit and Alcindoro, Tony Dillon; Parpignol, Noah Baetge. (Simpson, Kelly and Baetge are former members of the Seattle Opera Young Artists making their mainstage debuts.)

Of the 12 performances, May 5 is sold out; the best available seats are on May 8, 15, 18 and 20. Tickets are $51 to $141, 389-7676 or www.seattleopera.org. There are previews before the operas and post-opera Q&A sessions. Seattle Opera director Speight Jenkins will air previews on KING 98.1 FM every evening the week prior to the performance.

"La Boheme" is an ideal opera for every member of the family. See you there.

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