ACT I — In their Latin Quarter garret, the artist Marcello and poet Rodolfo try to keep warm by burning pages from Rodolfo’s latest drama. They are joined by Colline, a young philosopher, and Schaunard, a musician who has landed a job and brings food, fuel and funds. While they celebrate their unexpected fortune, the landlord, Benoit, comes to collect the rent. Plying the older man with wine, they urge him to tell of his flirtations, then throw him out in mock indignation when he mentions his wife. As the friends depart for a Christmas Eve celebration at the Café Momus, Rodolfo promises to join them soon, staying behind to write. There is a knock at the door: the visitor is a neighbor, Mimi, whose candle has gone out on the drafty stairs. When Mimi suddenly
feels faint, Rodolfo offers her wine, then relights her candle and helps her to the door. Mimi realizes she has lost her key, and as the two search for it, both candles are blown out. In the moonlight the poet takes the girl’s icy hand, telling her his dreams (“Che gelida manina”). She then recounts her life alone, embroidering flowers and waiting for spring (“Mi chiamano Mimi”). Drawn to each other (“O soave fanciulla”),
Mimi and Rodolfo slowly leave for the café.
ACT II — Amid shouts of street hawkers, Rodolfo buys Mimi a bonnet near the Café Momus before introducing her to his friends. They all sit down and order supper. The toy
vendor Parpignol passes by, besieged by children. Marcello’s former girlfriend, Musetta, enters ostentatiously on the arm of the elderly, wealthy Alcindoro, arousing the painter’s jealousy. Trying to regain his attention, she sings a waltz about
her popularity (“Quando me’n vo’”). Complaining that her shoe pinches, Musetta sends Alcindoro to fetch a new pair, then falls into Marcello’s arms. Joining a group of marching soldiers, the Bohemians leave Alcindoro to face the bill when he returns.
ACT III — At dawn on the snowy outskirts of Paris, a Customs Officer admits farm women to the city. Musetta and revelers are heard inside a tavern. Soon Mimi appears, searching for the place where the reunited Marcello and Musetta now live. When the painter emerges, she pours out her distress over Rodolfo’s jealousy (“O buon Marcello,
aiuto!”). It is best they part, she says. Rodolfo, who has been asleep in the tavern, is heard, and Mimi hides; Marcello thinks she has left. The poet first tells Marcello
he wants to separate from his sweetheart because she is fickle, but when pressed, he breaks down, confessing his fear that her ill health can only worsen in the poverty they share. Overcome, Mimi stumbles forward to bid her lover farewell (“Donde lieta uscì”) as Marcello runs into the tavern to investigate Musetta’s raucous laughter. While Mimi and Rodolfo recall their happiness, Musetta quarrels with Marcello (quartet: “Addio, dolce svegliare”). The painter and his mistress part in fury, but Mimi and Rodolfo decide to stay together until spring.
ACT IV — Some months later, separated from their sweethearts, Rodolfo and Marcello lament their loneliness in the garret (duet: “O Mimi, tu più non torni”). Colline and
Schaunard bring a meager meal. The four stage a dance, which turns into a mock fight. The merrymaking is ended when Musetta bursts in, saying Mimi is downstairs, too
weak to climb up. As Rodolfo runs to her, Musetta tells how Mimi asked to be taken to her lover to die. While Mimi is made comfortable, Marcello goes with Musetta to sell her earrings for medicine, and Colline leaves to pawn his cherished overcoat (“Vecchia zimarra”). Alone, Mimi and Rodolfo wistfully recall their first days together (“Sono andati?”), but she is seized with coughing. When the others return, Musetta gives Mimi a muff to warm her hands and prays for her life. Mimi dies quietly, and when Schaunard discovers she is dead, Rodolfo runs to her side, calling her name.
—© Opera News 2009. Reprinted with permission
“Bohemia is a stage of artistic life; it is the preface to the Academy, the Hôtel Dieu, or the Morgue.”
—Henri Murger in his preface to Scènes de la vie de bohème.
Puccini’s relationship to La Bohème is intimate and complex. His opera is drawn directly from Murger’s 1849 novel, Scènes de la vie de bohème, but includes vivid vignettes of his own invention, insisted upon in his many and varied letters to his harried librettists, Illica and Giacosa, both of whom threatened to quit at least once during the turbulent composition of La Bohème.
In 1892, Puccini had completed work on what would become the turning point of his career, Manon Lescaut. He was in need of something new. Composers of the late 19th century were interested in greater realism in their operas—dramas about ordinary people in ordinary situations. “Little souls,” Puccini called them. He had plumbed prose for Manon Lescaut in search of realistic situations, and other composers of the new verismo style had turned to mid-nineteenth century French literature to tremendous success (think Carmen and La Traviata). Murger’s Scènes de la vie de bohème proved a very popular consideration among composers. Massenet’s publisher had toyed with offering it to his composer, and Leoncavallo had allegedly mentioned it to Puccini. When Puccini expressed little interest (he was deeply involved in the composition of The She-Wolf, which was never completed), Leoncavallo happily set about making Murger’s work his own.
Imagine Leoncavallo’s dismay when Puccini revealed several months later in casual conversation his work with Illica and Giacosa on none other than La Bohème! The composer of Pagliacci wasn’t about to take this lying down, and fired off a letter to Il secolo, informing the public of his precedence with the material. As Murger’s novel was in public domain, Puccini’s publisher, Ricordi, was unable to obtain exclusive rights to the work for his composer. Therefore, with a confident flourish, Puccini returned fire in a rival publication:
“…what does this matter to him? Let him compose, and I will compose. The public will judge.”
And with that, Puccini returned to his work. To be fair, it may have been that Puccini had no intention of scooping Leoncavallo. After the success of Manon Lescaut, Puccini returned, as he often did, to his friends in Torre del Lago, an ancient Italian village located on a beautiful lake. Here he had retreated after his failure with Edgar; here he had written much of Manon Lescaut; and here he had gathered to himself his own gang of bohemians, and his own Café Momus, which he and his friends had dubbed “The Bohemian Club.”
Puccini’s own bohemians consisted of the painter, Ferruccio Pagni (who, upon his return to Torre del Lago after Manon Lescaut told him, “You don’t need to go all over Italy in search of stories and plots. Write about us! We are the real life; we are la bohème!”); Stinchio di Merlo, owner of The Bohemian; and impressionists Francesco Fanelli and Adolfo Tommasi. Pagni’s off-the-cuff suggestion of bohemians as the subject for an opera may have jostled Puccini’s memory of Murger’s book and he contrived to borrow a copy, which he quickly devoured.
Then, Puccini thoughtfully re-imagined several of Murger’s female characters into his composite portrait of the beautiful, delicate Mimi, a fragile heroine worthy of his particular talents. He wrote Illica, who was engaged to write the scenario, “Behold my heroine. I want scenes from Murger, but leave room for my own additions.”
Puccini’s additions turn out to be the salt that brings out the flavors in Murger’s bohemian stew. The composer drew on his own experiences with the miseries of bohemian life, and the joy in his own relationships in Torre del Lago. The deathly cold Parisian garret finds its parallel in Milan where, bereft of money and unwilling to burn their meager furniture, Puccini and his friend Mascagni sacrifice their music manuscripts to the fire. Like Colline, Puccini often pawned his overcoat in the pursuit of funds—in one case, to entertain an attractive ballerina. The cheerful banter and whistling to the gallows attitude of the opera’s bohemians draws verisimilitude from not only Murger’s life, but from Puccini’s evenings at The Bohemian in Torre del Lago.
With such strong images in his head, it is little wonder that Puccini’s vision exhausted and infuriated his long suffering librettists. In a fit of pique, Giacosa, the versifier, scribbled to Ricordi:
“I confess to you that of all this incessant rewriting, retouching, adding, correcting, taking away and sticking on again, puffing it out on the right side to thin it down on the left, I am sick to death. Curse the libretto!”
Ricordi talked temperance to Giacosa, who had tried to quit numerous times, and the poet shrugged off his frustration and remained with the project.
Puccini’s perfectionism and craftsmanship are on full display in La Bohème. The score took two long years to complete, and did not receive nearly the critical acclaim that Manon Lescaut had enjoyed. The beautifully balanced La Bohème, with its chiaroscuro laughter and tears, was accused of triviality. Critics reviled him for “errors” in the score:
“There is much in the score that is empty and downright infantile. The composer should realize that originality can be obtained perfectly well with the old established means without recourse to consecutive fifths and a disregard of good harmonic rules.” (Carlo Bersezio, 1896, La stampa)
La Bohème was revolutionary, and it wasn’t long before the public recognized it. Puccini’s highly descriptive score—cinematic in its tautness and timing—helped the opera to find its way into opera houses all over the world, and has kept it there for the last 113 years and for the foreseeable future.
And what of Leoncavallo’s La Bohème? He completed his opera, of which he was both composer and librettist, slightly after Puccini had opened his version. There are many similarities between the two, but Leoncavallo’s is more strictly tied to the darker aspects of Murger’s novel. The gritty, dirty truth of the ugly side of bohemian life are on full display in the second half, and the death of Mimi paints a brilliant, frightening vision of the reality of poverty. In Leoncavallo’s La Bohème, Murger would have found his own Paris and bohemians. For a time Leoncavallo’s opera was better known and more successful, and the two operas coexisted for about 10 years before Puccini’s masterpiece eclipsed his rival’s. The confident Puccini had been proven correct. The public had judged and Puccini was triumphant.