Just returned from a March break of excessive driving - to Long Island and back by way of Montreal. Took my 12 year old daughter to see RENT in New York as a present for her upcoming birthday; she adores the movie and has watched it countless times. I guess I never realized how sexually explicit it was, or perhaps seeing live actors made it seem more so than it did on film. Still, my little girl, having grown up on hip-hop music videos, seemed unperturbed by Mimi's pornographic writhing, transforming it, as the play expects you to, into romantic yearning.
Like Mimi herself, the play is an odd combination of vulgarity and tenderness: no wonder it is such a hit with teenagers! "La Vie Boheme", a scene set in a cafe, explains charmingly that the two main incentives of its characters, as refugees from conventionality, are to get laid and to piss off their parents. There really aren't any artists in Bohemia anymore: Mark (Marcello) is no longer a painter but instead a documentary filmmaker; Maureen (Musetta ) has been demoted from a singer to a narcissitic "performance artist." Aesthetic idealism is hardly even alluded to, except perhaps by Roger (Rodolfo) who wants to write one true song before he dies.
It is the omnipresence of death, in the form of AIDS, which transforms these mediocrities into Romantic figures, because they are condemned to die for love. Of course, sex and death are the standard themes of opera, but opera usually aspires to transcendence through extraordinary music, which RENT does not attain except, perhaps, in one great song, "Seasons of Love." It is, in fact, resolutely ordinary in its singing, in its musical compositions, and in its characters.
I find this fascinating. And disturbing.