Notes on La Bohème
Giacomo’s Puccini’s La Bohème holds a special place in the hearts of most opera lovers: perhaps it was the first opera they had seen, or the first to draw tears. This is no story of kings and contessas, or a retelling of a story set in some far-off time and place. Puccini’s protagonists are six contemporary young people in the period of self-discovery between feckless youth and adult responsibility. (Think “Friends” but with purpose — and better music.) Puccini makes us want to believe: to believe in the characters, to hope that things will turn out alright for Mimí and Rodolfo, although we know they won’t. It is no accident that the story has been successfully recycled more than once, including the award-winning musical Rent.
Resetting Henri Murger’s 1851 Scènes de la vie de bohème — a collection of (probably at least semi-autobiographical) linked stories about a group of “bohemians” set in the years before the 1848 revolutions that engulfed France and, indeed, most of Europe — was so obvious that Puccini wasn’t the only one to think of it. His friend Ruggero Leoncavallo (of I Pagliacci fame) had the same idea. Indeed, Leoncavallo (by then no longer quite so friendly) publicly accused Puccini of stealing the concept. Puccini beat Leoncavallo to the punch; his opera premiered in 1896 at the Teatro Regio in Turin (conducted by no less than Arturo Toscanini). Within two years, it had been performed around the world from New York to Alexandria. Leoncavallo’s work premiered in 1897 and, whatever its merits— and there are many — it remained an also-ran, more often than not known as the “other Bohème”.
La Bohème was not, it should be said, Puccini’s first hit nor was it his first work that went head-to-head with another composer. His 1893 opera Manon Lescaut, his third and one which reworked a story that Jules Massenet had successfully set to music only a decade earlier, established Puccini as, in the words of George Bernard Shaw, “the heir of Verdi”. But it was nonetheless La Bohème that ushered in the period of Puccini’s greatest creativity, the first of the trio of operas that includes Tosca and Madama Butterfly.
George Bernard Shaw also once said the “Opera is when a tenor and soprano want to make love, but are prevented from doing so by a baritone.” In La Bohème, the poet Rodolfo and silk flower-maker Mimì are true to form, but the baritone — the painter Marcello — is one of opera’s most appealing characters; everyone should have a friend in need like Marcello. Nor — as is opera’s wont — is the other soprano, the flirty, headstrong Musetta, the “other woman”. She gives Marcello a hard time, but is hardly, as she says of herself when praying for Mimì, “unworthy of forgiveness”; quite the contrary.
The protagonists are rounded with the musician Schaunard— who secures for the company of bohemians their holiday repast by singing for, and then poisoning, some eccentric Englishman’s parrot — and the philosopher Colline to whom Puccini gives one of opera’s most evocative bass odes when he bids his old overcoat adieu before pawning it in the finale Act.
Puccini’s music is, it goes without saying, unsurpassed; one hardly needs to understand anything to feel what is being communicated. But Puccini’s ability to get his audiences to identify with his characters comes just as much from his observations of the minutiae of daily life: candles blow out in the draft, keys are lost, love starts with holding hands in the dark, lovers quarrel and make up, people get hungry and pawn their possessions. They are people we know, or want to know.
La Bohème is a tragedy — how could it not be? — with long stretches of? some of the most lyrical paeans to romance ever written. But Puccini knew that life is as much about the absurd as the beautiful or tragic, and he includes a fair dose of comedy: whether the bohemians (as in other places of this article) putting one over on their avaricious, although in the end somewhat pitiable, landlord Benoît, or girl-about-town Musetta sticking her sugar daddy Alcindoro with her bohemian friends’ bill from the unaffordable Café Momus.
Words matter in La Bohème; the libretto — perhaps in honor of its poet protagonist — is filled with rhyme and rhythm and moments of great poetic power, none perhaps more wrenching that when Rodolfo tells the dying Mimì that she is as beautiful as the dawn. “You’ve mixed your metaphors,” she tells him, “it should be a sunset”. In portraying these lives of quite ordinary people with grace, compassion, humour and humanity, Puccini makes them — in their intimacy — universal. No one who has ever loved, or ever hoped to, can leave a performance untouched. La Bohème is, in spite (or perhaps because) of its heart-breaking denouement, a celebration of what it means to be alive.