The Story Behind the Opera "La bohème" by Puccini
“La bohème” portrays a 19th-century love story of a poor French couple, a poet, and a seamstress. The opera was crafted in 4 acts by Giacomo Puccini between the period of 1893 to 1895. It is accompanied by an Italian libretto, which is written by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica. The opera is also coming from a book “Scènes de la vie de bohème,” or “Scenes from Bohemian Life” by Henri Murger.
The original source, Murger’s novel, also narrated the life of young Parisian bohemians, which Puccini retains throughout. While composing the opera, he even had a brief dispute with Leoncavallo, a contemporary music composer regarding the libretto. Puccini stood firm and went on with his own version.
The libretto is mostly original. Much of Act 1 and Act 4 are retained from the novel, while prime actions in Act 2 and 3 are formulated by the librettists’. The officially published libretto also contains a note offering a summary of the adaptation. It defends and discusses the amalgamation of the characters Mimì and Francine into “Mimì,” one of the main protagonists of the opera.
History & Performances
“La bohème” premiered at the “Teatro Regio” in Turin on the 1st of February, 1896. Arturo Toscanini conducted on that night, as "La bohème" went on to become an integral part of the opera repertory, both in Italy and worldwide. In 1946, Toscanini collaborated with NBC Symphony Orchestra to conduct a commemorative setting to mark its 50th anniversary, this time on the radio. It remains the only recorded piece of the opera by Toscanini, its original conductor.
The initial audience response was tad subdued, while the critics appeared polarized. However, the opera soon gained recognition among various Italian productions, including “La Fenice,” and “La Scala.” In 1896, the overseas debut was held in Argentina, at the “Teatro Colón” in Buenos Aires. In April 1897, the first performance across the English Channel was held at Manchester. Puccini personally supervised the arrangement by Carl Rosa Opera Company. A few months later, the company staged its second production at London’s Royal Opera House. “La bohème” soon crossed the Atlantic again, and was staged at New York and Los Angeles in its USA tour.
In 1990, Baz Luhrmann modernized the opera onstage for “Opera Australia,” along with subsequent DVD release. In 2002, another restaged version was held on Broadway, which won 2 prestigious Tony Awards. In 2009, OperaUpClose roped in Robin Norton-Hale to direct it at the Cock Tavern Theatre. In 2010, the production was shifted to the Soho Theatre in London’s West End, which went on to grab a Laurence Olivier Award.
Act 1 starts on Christmas Eve in Paris. Marcello and Rodolfo are bohemians residing in an attic. Rodolfo is gazing out of the window while Marcello paints. The cold is unrelenting, which forces them to burn manuscripts of Rodolfo’s drama to keep warm. Colline, their philosopher friend, enters the scene disgruntled and shivering. He failed to pawn some books. Next, the group musician Schaunard arrives with cigars, wine, and food. He had managed to land a job that required him to play the violin to a parrot and has amassed substantial wealth in the process. He further interrupts the others from setting up the table, inviting them to dinner at Cafe Momus to celebrate his fortune.
Before they leave, Benoît, their landlord, arrives inquiring about rent. However, the group manages to flatter him and get him drunk instead. The landlord starts boasting about his amorous antics and is subsequently sent on his way, sans the rent. The whole thing is portrayed in a dose of comical, albeit moral indignation. The friends divide the rent money as they plan to head out to the Quartier Latin.
Everyone except Rodolfo leaves, as the latter stays back to finish writing an article. Soon, a neighbor girl from the same building knocks at the door. She requests Rodolfo’s help for lighting her candles, as she doesn’t have any matches. Soon, she experiences a feat of dizziness. Rodolfo takes care of her, offering her a glass of wine to steady herself. As her health improves, she realizes that her key is missing. At that very moment, all candles go out, leaving the pair stumbling in the darkness. Rodolfo meanwhile locates the keys and hides them. He is already allured towards the girl and wants to spend more time with her. He sings the aria “What a cold little hand” while holding her palms and narrates his life as a poet. The girl conveys her name through the song “Yes, they call me Mimì,” and describes her lifestyle as an embroiderer. Meanwhile, Rodolfo’s friends call on him impatiently. As he responds and turns back, he catches a glimpse of Mimi serenaded in the moonlight. They perform the duet “Oh lovely girl,” realizing they have fallen for each other. Mimi decides to accompany the group to Cafe Momus. The couple leaves the building singing about their newfound attachment.
It starts in the streets of Paris, where a large crowd gathers along with the children. The street sellers render the aria “Oranges, dates! Hot chestnuts!” as the group of friends embark. Rodolfo buys a bonnet for Mimi, while Schaunard and Colline purchase a horn and a coat, respectively. As the Parisians and bargain and gossip, and the children clamor around the streets, the group enter “Cafe Momus.”
As they dine, Marcello’s former partner Musetta arrives at the scene, accompanied by her elderly and rich admirer. She still retains her feelings towards Marcello and performs a “risqué song” titled “When I go along” trying to catch his attention. Her ploy succeeds, and it also helps Mimi recognize that her dedication towards Marcello is genuine. Musetta cleverly sends Alcindoro (her admirer) away to get her shoe repaired. As soon as he leaves, Marcello and Musetta unite, accompanied by rapturous applause from the onlookers.
As the group receives the bill, they realize that Schaunard’s purse was lost, and they don’t have enough money. However, the sly Musetta again saves the day, transferring the entire bill in Alcindoro’s name. As soon as the group of friends leaves, Alcindoro arrives looking for Musetta. As he receives the bill, a dumbfounded Alcindoro sinks into his seat.
The scene takes place at the Barrière d’Enfer in Paris. Mimi appears sick and coughing continuously, looking for Marcello. She locates him at a nearby tavern and narrates her grievances against Rodolfo, who had abandoned her the previous night. She further explains Rodolfo’s overly-jealous nature through the song, “Oh, good Marcello, help me!” Marcello says to her that Rodolfo is currently sleeping inside, and also expresses his apprehension about Mimi’s continuous coughs.
Shortly, Rodolfo wakes up and starts having a conversation with Marcello. He first explains that he left Mimi because of her flirtatious nature, but soon confesses that he was lying. His “jealousy” was an act to get away from Mimi, who is slowly being engulfed by a deadly illness, possibly tuberculosis. Rodolfo is poor and can do little about it, so he had pretended to be unkind, hoping Mimi would abandon him and seek a wealthier admirer. Marcello explains this through the aria “Marcello, finally.”
Mimi, who was hiding since the moment Marcello came out, had overheard everything. Mimi makes her presence felt and asks Rodolfo for an amicable separation through the song, “From here, she happily left.” However, their affection towards each other is quite enduring, so they agree to a compromise. They decide to stay together until Spring so that neither feels truly alone. Meanwhile, Musetta and Marcello have a fierce disagreement over Musetta’s flirtatious nature. It’s an antithesis referring to circumstances of the couple’s reconciliation. The quartet “Goodbye, sweet awakening in the morning!” closes the scene.
Rodolfo and Marcello are working and discussing their ex-partners, who have left them for wealthier admirers. Marcello has noticed Mimi being dressed like a queen, while Rodolfo has watched Musetta riding a prime carriage. The men lament through a duet, “O Mimì, will you not return?” Colline and Schaunard also arrive with scarce food. They host a parody banquet, where Colline and Schaunard also engage in a mock duel.
Musetta unexpectedly appears at the scene with Mimi. Mimi left her wealthy patron, and Musetta had found her in the streets severely ill. As she is helped to a bed, Marcello and Musetta go out to sell off Musetta’s earrings for medicine. Colline and Schaunard accompany them, too. Colline plans to pawn his old overcoat for the same purpose, while Schaunard wants to give the couple some alone time. As they leave, the couple express their love towards each other with the duet “Have they gone?”
Rodolfo had kept the pink bonnet he gave Mimi as a souvenir of their affection, which he presents her again. They reiterate their relationship, how they met, the lost key, and the candles. However, Mimi is slowly being overwhelmed by continuous cough. Soon, the friends return with a cordial to soothe her throat and a muff to keep her warm. Mimi thanks them and reassures everyone that she will get better. As she falls asleep, Musetta starts praying for her health. Mimi eventually succumbs to her illness. When Schaunard declares it, Rodolfo rushes towards the bed calling out her name helplessly. The curtain falls on Rodolfo, crying uncontrollably.
Despite its massive popularity with audiences, “La bohème” was heavily criticized by some composers who found Puccini’s music difficult and inadequately sophisticated. They considered his music neat, but cheap and empty at the same time. However, that is another subject to discussion.
Nevertheless, Puccini successfully swings his musical wand to offer a perfect mesh of tears and glee. It’s like experiencing two sides of the same coin. His theatrical intuition is almost faultless, and nobody can tease our musical senses so extravagantly and effortlessly. A fair warning - viewers may end up heartbroken after viewing this opera.
The phase where the protagonists fall in love is truly a musical masterclass. The speed of the romance development may feel theatrical, but that is understandable, considering both characters are artists in their own life. The second act treats us to the most familiar musical cacophony of the streets - something we all encounter and get used to. The music in the third act is repetitive but offers darker tones. The tragedy is presented intricately by the quartet at the end.
An Emotional Journey
“La bohème” never had a great reputation among “opera highbrows.” It does somewhat lack moral ambiguity as compared to....., let’s say Shakespearean magnificence or even Verdi and Mozart’s grandeur. However, it cannot be accused of being overly intellectual, too, something that resonates with its popularity among the public. It offers a concise atmospheric plot that connects with the viewer’s emotions, incorporated with great duets and arias around the corners. It does have a sophistically constructed spine, which may not be visible at first glance. Puccini’s opera successfully surpasses his own derivatives.
One thing “La bohème” guarantees is the anticipation of happiness. When Puccini duly mesmerizes the viewers with his exceptionally crafted score, those expectations are rarely left unfulfilled. The composer dishes out a mixture of ravishing music framed within tight construction, ceasing at the perfect moment, with the right pinch of sentimental overtones. It may not boast of depth, but it surely carries enough emotional weight for the viewers to fill the gaps with their own dreams. Each encounter with the opera will make the audience rethink the delicate elements, one that the composer successfully deploys to make it a time-proof masterpiece.
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