Opera in 4 acts
Libretto: Giuseppe Giacosa & Luigi Illica, after Scènes de la vie de bohème by Henry Murger (1851)
First performed: Teatro Rugin, Turin, 1 February 1896, conducted by Arturo Toscanini
- RODOLFO, a poet (tenor)
- MARCELLO, a painter (baritone)
- SCHAUNARD, a musician (baritone)
- COLLINE, a philosopher (bass)
- MIMI (soprano)
- MUSETTA (soprano)
SETTING: Paris, about 1830
Synopsis based on English language translation by W. Grist and P. Pinkerton, G. Ricordi & Co, New York, 1896/1917
Rodolfo and Marcello are sitting in the latter’s attic-studio in the Quartier Latin, in Paris. Marcello is absorbed in his painting. The day is cold. They have no money to buy coal. Marcello takes a chair to burn it, when Rodolfo remembers that he has a manuscript which has been rejected by the publisher and lights a fire with that instead. Colline enters, looking abject and miserable. He had gone out to pawn his books, but nobody wanted them. Their friend, Schaunard, however, had better luck. He comes bringing fuel and provisions. They all prepare their meal, when the landlord enters and demands the payment of his rent. The friends offer him a glass of wine and turn him out amidst joking and laughter. After their gay repast they separate and Rodolfo remains alone writing.
A knock is heard at the door and Mimi, a little seamstress, who lives on the same floor, appears and asks Rodolfo to give her a match to light her candle. As she is about to go out, she falls in a faint. Rodolfo gives her wine and restores her to consciousness. She tells him that she suffers from consumption. Rodolfo is struck by her beauty and her delicate hands. She notices that she has lost her key and whilst they search for it their candles are extinguished. As they grope on the floor in the dark, Rudolph finds the key and puts it in his pocket. Their hands meet and Rodolfo tries to warm her hands and tells her all about his life.
Mimi confides her struggles to him and their conversation soon turns upon their love for each other.
The Quartier Latin
Rodolfo’s friends have repaired to their favorite Cafè. It is Christmas Eve and everyone is in festive spirits. All the shops are bright and displaying their goods. Hawkers offer their goods for sale in the streets. Rodolfo and Mimi are seen entering a milliner’s where he is to buy her a new hat. Colline, Schaunard and Marcello take their seats in front of the Cafè, where a table has been prepared for them. Rodolfo introduces Mimi to his friends. Musetta, Marcello’s flame, with whom he has quarrelled, now enters with Alcindoro.
Marcello is deeply moved when he sees her. Musetta notices this and sends Alcindoro on an errand. Whilst he is away, she makes peace with Marcello. The friends find that they have not sufficient money to pay for their supper, so they carry off Musetta and leave their bills to be paid by Alcindoro.
The Barrière d’Enfer
Months have elapsed, bringing joy and misery to Rodolfo and Mimi. He loves her passionately, but is consumed with jealousy. On a wintry day, Marcello is seen leaving a tavern near the Gates of Paris. He meets Mimi; she looks pale and haggard. She asks Marcello to help her and tells him of Rodolfo’s love and jealousy, explaining that she must leave him. Rodolfo now comes upon the scene and not seeing Mimi tells of all the miserìes of their lives; how he loves her and believes her to be dying of consumption. Mimi’s cough betrays her and although she says goodbye to Rodolfo they find they cannot part and determine to await the spring. Meanwhile Musetta and Marcel have a violent quarrel.
Marcello and Rodolfo are now living together in their attic-studio. Musetta and Mimi have left them. They are seemingly working, but their thoughts wander towards the women they love. Schaunard and Colline enter with rolls and a herring for their meal. They have a wild time and are dancing and singing when Musetta enters and tells them that Mimi is outside so weak and ill that she can go no further. They make up a bed on the couch for her and bring her in. She clings to Rodolfo and implores him not to leave her. Mimi reconciles Marcello and Musetta. Musetta tells her old friends that Mimi is dying and gives them her earrings to sell, asking them to get a doctor for Mimi. They all go out leaving Rodolfo alone with Mimi. He holds her in his arms and recalls their love. Mimi is seized with a fit of coughing and falls back in a faint. Musetta returns with medicine. Mimi regains consciousness and turning to Rodolfo tells him of her love. Musetta falls upon her knees in prayer and Mimi passes away in Rudolph ‘s arms.
One of the world’s most popular operas ever since its première, conducted by Toscanini. The reception was mixed, but the opera soon spread to Italy and then outside. Now found in opera houses everywhere.
Leoncavallo, composer of I pagliacci, had claimed Murger’s book for himself; his version was well received at first, but did not survive. Massenet, who knew the people in Murger’s semi-autobiographical story, also thought of turning it into an opera.
La Bohème is, according to Operabase, the fourth most performed opera in the world. The big opera houses usually play it at least every two or three seasons, sometimes every year. It’s an audience favourite, guaranteed to sell out. It’s often recommended as a great introduction to opera for newcomers.
It’s easy to see why it’s popular. The story is “relatable”: boy meets girl, boy loses girl. It’s the stuff of a thousand romcoms, with a sad ending to weep at. The characters are sympathetic: young, poor, high-spirited, and in love. It’s all small-scale and human, and moves quite quickly. There aren’t any longueurs, difficult symphonic music, or elaborate ensembles, and you don’t need to bone up on mythology, history, or philosophy.
It’s easy for an opera house to put on: small cast, no world-class voices needed, and no elaborate sets (unless you’re Franco Zeffirelli, and decide to rebuild 19th-century Paris onstage).
But its perennial popularity leaves me slightly nonplussed.
I don’t dislike it. I am not, unlike Benjamin Britten, “sickened by the cheapness and emptiness of the music”. I do not, unlike the New York Tribune‘s Henry Kriebel, find it “foul in subject and fulminant, but futile, in its music”.
I’m not interested in the story; my tastes run more to history and legend, so this naturalistic little story doesn’t capture my imagination in the way that, say, Boris Godunov or Le Prophète do. Even among Puccini’s own works, I much prefer the dark Chinese fairytale Turandot, his musically richest opera, and the black comedy of Gianni Schicchi
La Traviata has almost the same plot, but the tunes are better. Here, there’s nothing, really, to write home about musically. The music is generally functional; it’s in the post-Wagnerian, post-Falstaffian manner: no “numbers”, per se, but a kind of quasi-aria, quasi-recit over the orchestra. There are recurring phrases (not quite Leitmotifs), and the music occasionally blossoms into lush, lyrical outpourings: “Che gelida manina” and “O soave fanciulla”, for instance. Musetta’s Waltz Song is a show-stopper, and I’ve seen a singer with more stage presence than voice put it across.
Mimi’s death is one of those extracted, rather dull, deathbed scenes familiar from Gounod and Massenet where we wait for her to snuff it, while the orchestra repeats the hits of the evening, so we know which piano arrangements to buy.
Victoria de los Angeles (Mimi) and Jussi Björling (Rodolfo), conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham. New York, 1956.