Opera in 4 Acts| Composer: Giacomo Puccini
Librettist: L. Illica & G. Giacosa | Based on novel by H. Murger
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Run time: approx. 2.5 hours
Language: Italian | Surtitle: Chinese / English
In the garret in Paris
Four artists living in poverty share a garret studio in the Latin Quarter of Paris. On Christmas Eve Marcello, painter, and Rodolfo, poet, find it impossible to work because of the cold. Rodolfo feeds the stove by lighting up the manuscript of his own drama. Colline, philosopher, returns in time to enjoy a brief moment of warmth. Schaunard the musician brings back food, wine, fuel and money which he has just earned from an eccentric Englishman. He suggests that they drink at home and dine outside to celebrate. The landlord Benoît comes to collect the overdue rent. The four friends offer him wine and encourage him to boast about his extra-marital affairs. Then, pretending to be shocked, they push him out of the garret. All leave for Café Momus except Rodolfo who stays behind to finish an article. Mini, the seamstress living next door, knocks to ask for a light for her candle. A fainting spell causes her to drop the key to her room. Soon, Rodolfo’s own candle is blown out. Searching for the key in the dark, their hands touch. As moonlight fills the room, they realise that they are in love.
Café Momus in the Latin Quarter
At Café Momus, Rodoldo introduces Mimì to his friends who have taken a table on the pavement. Musetta, Marcello’s former sweetheart, arrives with her latest protector, the rich and elderly Alcindoro. Her heart, however, still belongs to Marcello and she displays outrageous behaviour to attract his attention. She succeeds in sending Alcindoro away by screaming about the pain caused by her shoe, which she insists must be immediately taken to repair. As Musetta falls into Marcello’s arms to everyone’s delight, a festive procession arrives and all join in the celebration.
A toll gate to Paris
During the harsh days of winter, Marcello and Musetta live in a tavern near one of the tollgates of Paris where there is work for both of them. Mimì comes to seek help from Marcello. She and Rodolfo love each other passionately but their relationship has become unbearable because of the poet’s jealousy and extreme temper. Rodolfo is in fact inside the tavern at that moment. He too has come to ask Marcello’s advice about his problem with Mimì. As Rodolfo approaches to speak to Marcello, Mimì hides from sight. She now overhears the true reason for Rodolfo’s irrational behavior: he believes she is fatally ill and he blames himself for being too poor to properly provide for her. Mimì’s weeping and coughing reveal her presence and Rodolfo runs to comfort her. She tells Rodolfo that they should say goodbye without regret, but the two finally agree to stay together until spring returns. In the meantime Marcello accuses Musetta of flirting with the tavern’s customers. They part in a fury.
In the garret
Marcello and Rodolfo cannot concentrate on their work. They lament the loss of those days of happiness which they once shared with Musetta and Mimì. Colline and Schaunard bring in some bread and a dried fish with which the four friends pretend to arrange a banquet. Their noisy fooling-about is interrupted by the sudden appearance of Musetta. She has come with Mimì who is desperately ill and wants to be taken to Rodolfo. Mimì and Rodolfo are now left alone by their friends who go out to pawn whatever they can to call a doctor or buy some medicine. The lovers share some moments of happiness by recalling how they first met and how their love began. The friends return to the garret. They soon realise that Mimì is dead. With a cry of anguish, Rodolfo falls on the lifeless body of his beloved.
₍₁₎ 8/12, 8PM | ₍₂₎ 9/12, 8PM | ₍₃₎ 10/12, 2:30PM | ₍₄₎ 10/12, 8PM
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.