La Bohème is Giacomo Puccini’s fourth opera, following close on the heels of his first enduring success, Manon Lescaut. It was completed in June 1895 and premiered on 1st February 1896 in the Teatro Regio in Turin, where his first opera Le Villi (in its second version) and Manon Lescaut had been premiered. This time the theatre management entrusted the performance to a twenty-nine year old conductor by the name of Arturo Toscanini. Toscanini would go on to record the opera many years later.
Puccini, already wise in the craft of the theatre, was very aware of the latest development in Italian opera called verismo, or ‘realism’. The subject-matter was no longer to be the lives and loves of princes and slave-girls or the re-telling of fairy-tales. Instead, opera was to concern itself with the nitty-gritty lives of ordinary folk, unvarnished accounts of their passions and struggles. Puccini knew Mascagni and had witnessed the success of ¬Cavalleria Rusticana ever since its sensational premiere in Rome in 1890. Now he turned to a story in a novel by Henri Murget, Scènes de la vie de bohème, about poverty-stricken bohemians in the Latin Quarter of Paris. He worked closely with his librettists, Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, reshaping their ideas and demanding several re-writes until they came up with the libretto he wanted.
The result of their collaboration is an opera which still holds its place as arguably the most-performed and best-loved of all Italian operas. It is a good choice for anyone coming to Italian opera for the first time, for it unfailingly stirs the heart of all but the most intransigent. Yet its accessibility by no means implies that it is at all superficial. Millions (including the present writer) continue to captivated by it even four decades after hearing it for the first time. What, then, is the secret of its success?
For all that the story is set in the squalid bohemian quarter of late 19th-century Paris, Puccini took care not to let the setting dictate the mood of the opera. The first and last Acts take place in winter in a poky, freezing garret; the second Act unfolds in a low-class café frequented by disreputable, low-life characters; the third Act is set outside a seedy tavern adjoining a toll-gate called the Gate of Hell. Cold, hunger. No romanticism here.
Puccini and his librettists could so easily have dramatized all of this in the manner of a Zola or a latter-day Balzac, showing just how awful were the lives of Parisians living in the midst of such misery. It was Puccini’s genius to do the very opposite.
Out of a midden beautiful flowers grow. Throughout the opera, Puccini uses the shabby, grey surroundings as the background to a set of characters who are colourful, robust, generous, life-enhancing, loving and lovable. The way in which colour and drabness offset one another is already vividly portrayed in the first Act when Mimì, for all her poverty and illness, sings of the flowers she embroiders; they remind her of the real flowers she loves but rarely sees. Her heart soars, and ours with it. Time and again, throughout the opera, the themes of cold, hunger and poverty are counterpointed against the warmth and richness of the characters’ humanity.
These bohemian companions are not idle wastrels. They are young, with a zest for life, each self-confident in his talent as poet, painter, musician, philosopher – it matters not whether they are really talented or not. They are loyal to each other and have warm hearts whatever the temperature outside. Mimì’s death is probably the first real tragedy they have witnessed, and they have no words for their grief, rendered silent by Rodolfo’s agony. This is indeed a verismo moment, but it is nakedly truthful, not melodramatic.
La Bohème is enriched by some of the loveliest music Puccini ever wrote: it is not without reason that so many of the big arias have entered into common knowledge. But these arias are no mere show-stoppers (even if, performed by artists such as those on this famous recording, they often did stop the show). They emerge organically from the action and allow us to feel with the characters the reality of their passion. Puccini’s deep understanding of the human voice is matchless, of course, and he never fails to provide great singers with the opportunity to fulfill themselves to the utmost.
Puccini was also a master of the orchestra. What is so impressive in La Bohème is the endless subtlety with which he employs his orchestral forces to illuminate moments of frivolity, intimacy, passion and pain.
If you are hearing the opera for the first time, you are in for a treat and will want to hear it again and again, and to see it in the theatre. If you are an ‘old hand’ you will appreciate the wonderful line-up of artists assembled by EMI for this recording. There is no space here for the complete libretto, but it is worth finding it online to appreciate fully Puccini’s mastery.
Act One. It is Christmas Eve in Paris. In the bohemian quarter, Rodolfo, a poet, and Marcello, a painter, sit shivering in their garret. Their musician friend, Schaunard, turns up unexpectedly. He has earned a few francs and has spent it on food and drink to share with his companions. A fourth friend, the philosopher Colline arrives, followed by the landlord demanding his overdue rent. They ply him with drink, flatter him, dispose of him easily and decide to go out for a good dinner at the Café Momus. As the companions head off, Rodolfo remains behind to finish a piece of writing. His musings are interrupted by a gentle knock on the door. He opens it to reveal the slight figure of a young girl, his downstairs neighbour. She needs a light for her candle and, as she enters the room, she almost faints, dropping her candle and her key. Rodolfo, who has noticed how ill she looks, lights her candle and gives her some wine to revive her. She goes to leave, then turns back to find her key. The draught blows out her candle; Rodolfo, already smitten, quickly extinguishes his own, plunging the room into darkness. As they search blindly on the floor for the key, their fingers touch. They tell each other about themselves: her name is Lucia but she is called Mimì, and she makes a living from embroidering flowers on silk and linen. From the street outside, Rodolfo’s friends call out to him to join them and, turning back from the window, he sees Mimì framed in the moonlight. They gaze at each other and realize that they are in love.
Act Two. Rodolfo and Mimì join their friends among the lively crowds at the Café Momus. Their fun is interrupted by the arrival of Musetta, an ex-girlfriend of Marcello, on the arm of her latest sugar-daddy, Alcindoro de Mittoneaux. Musetta and Alcindoro take a nearby table and Musetta begins to flirt openly with Marcello, much to the elderly gentleman’s annoyance and Marcello’s growing discomfort. Musetta sends Alcindoro off on an errand, and falls into Marcello’s arms. The bill arrives, but Schaunard has already spent his little windfall, so the companions, now including Musetta, take off, leaving the bill for Alcindoro to settle.
Act Three. It is February, and snow is falling. From a tavern near the Barrière d’Enfer toll-gate where Marcello and Musetta are living comes the sound of Musetta’s laughter. The mood changes as Mimì arrives in the square, clearly very ill and wracked with coughing. She needs to talk to Marcello: she and Rodolfo have split up, and she is in despair. Mimì hides as Rodolfo appears. He tells Marcello that he had become tired of Mimì’s fickleness, but that he is anxious about her health. Mimì’s coughing reveals her presence. She and Rodolfo embrace and tenderly agree to part without ill-feelings. In the background Marcello and Musetta are heard in one of their frequent rows.
Act Four. In the garret Rodolfo and Marcello are trying to cheer each other up but in reality are miserable at the loss of their lovers. Colline and Schaunard arrive with a little food, and the companions consume it with all the formality of a banquet. A mock duel ensues, but the fun comes to a sudden halt when Musetta arrives. She has brought Mimì who is downstairs and unable to climb any further. Mimì is dying and has asked Musetta to bring her to see Rodolfo. Rodolfo rushes off to carry Mimì upstairs while the others prepare a bed for her. Musetta sends Marcello to fetch a doctor and to sell her earrings to get money for his fee, then decides to go with him to buy Mimì a warm muff. Colline leaves to pawn his much-loved overcoat and takes Schaunard with him. Rodolfo is left alone with Mimì. They reminisce about how they met and fell in love, and Mimì drifts off into sleep. The other companions return; Musetta prays for Mimì. Gradually, Rodolfo senses the stillness in the room and, in a paroxysm of grief, realizes that Mimì has died.
Sleeve notes by John Kehoe