La Boheme and “the stuff of youth”
by Paula Fowler
La Bohème is an opera about young, idealistic people who are poised on the verge of adulthood, eager to fall in love forever, loathe to recognize illness or pain. The opera’s story is closely based on the experiences of Henri Murger, an impoverished Parisian poet who found he could make money by writing newspaper features about his community of starving artist friends. His stories, shaped for fiction from real-life episodes, drew the attention of playwright Théodore Barrière, who approached Murger with the idea of creating a stage drama based on some of the characters and story lines. Legend has it that Murger was so broke, he conducted negotiations with Barrière while sitting in bed, because he had loaned his pants to a friend. The resulting play, La Vie de Bohème, was produced in 1849; the stories in novel form appeared two years later as Scènes de la vie de Boheme. As a result of producing these popular works, poet Murger escaped from the hand-to-mouth existence of what he called “La Bohème”(“Bohemia”) and joined the French bourgeousie.
Using the term “Bohemian” to describe counterculture artist types was not original or unique to Murger. In 19th-century France, people commonly associated gypsies with a region then known as Bohemia (now, generally, the western area of the Czech Republic), and the term “bohemian” became a metaphor for living an unconventional life, as young aspiring artists often do.
Puccini probably used the term “bohemian” (the term has become so common, we don’t even need to capitalize it) to describe his own experience during the years when he struggled to establish himself as an opera composer. He earned a name for himself, and some fortune, with his first successful opera, 1893’s Manon Lescaut. During the next three years while he composed La Bohème, he practiced a less fund-strapped style of Bohemianism. He established his own “Club la Bohème” of friends and colleagues who met in a hut and created rules such as “silence is forbidden,” “be well and eat better,” and “wisdom is not permitted, except in special cases.”
The stories, play and novel based on Murger’s bohemian experiences attracted the attention of several composers. The creative team that Puccini and his publisher put together was superb: Luigi Illica created the scenario, or story line, and Giuseppe Giacosa created the poetic language of the libretto. This same team continued to work together on Puccini’s next two operas: Tosca (1900) and Madama Butterfly (1904).
When one considers that for Tosca Puccini had his publisher wrangle the rights from another composer, one might be led to suspect that Puccini’s friend and colleague Ruggiero Leoncavallo was speaking the truth when he claimed publicly that Puccini had made off with his own idea to write an opera based on La Vie de Bohème. Puccini responded in print, “Let him compose, I will compose, the public will judge.” They both persisted, and the conflict ended their friendship. Puccini’s version beat Leoncavallo’s to the stage and has prevailed.
For their opera, Puccini’s team followed the outline of Barrière’s play and focused on a sextet of characters: four young male artists (a poet, a painter, a musician, and a philosopher), and two women who are attached to two of the men. Rodolpho, the poet, is based on Murger, and Mimì, with whom he falls in love, is based on a series of women with whom Murger was involved, all of whom he nicknamed Mimì. The opera’s character is a sweet seamstress who is weak with the tuberculosis that will eventually kill her. The other couple—Marcello the painter and Musetta—have a tempestuous, fiery relationship, yet the creative team’s careful balancing keep them in the background to Rodolpho and Mimì. The two love affairs contrast each other, yet both are fragile. As author Murger penned, the Bohemians learned that “money is hard to earn and love impossible to keep.”
The premiere of the opera took place on February 1, 1896, in Turin, Italy, six weeks after the first performance in Italy of Wagner’s Götterdämerung in the same theatre. It’s difficult to imagine a more dramatic contrast: Puccini’s tender tale about the loves and heartbreaks of impoverished young all-too-human beings, against Wagner’s super-sized portrayal of the flood and conflagration accompanying the twilight of the gods. Puccini’s opera did not triumph at its première. One critic recorded, “La Bohème … will leave scant trace in the history of opera, and the author would be well advised to consider it a passing error.” Fortunately the opera had productions already booked in cities throughout Italy, and within months it had caught fire.
Many of Puccini’s innovations in creating La Bohème are striking and delightful. First, he shows a masterful touch for blending comic moments (especially with the four bohemian artist friends) with serious and tragic events (falling in love, expressing jealousy and pain, dying). Puccini’s operas also stand out for his ability to always keep the drama at the forefront. He begins his opera with an unconventional leap into action: there is no overture. Puccini does include conventional forms of opera—arias and love duets, for example—but notice that the famous self-introduction arias of Rodolpho and Mimì in Act I (“Che gelida manina” and “Mi chiamano Mimì”) are tapered at the beginning and the end, and softened throughout, with conversational lines. Pay attention, along that same vein, to Musetta’s Waltz: she starts with a large solo presentation, but her aria does not end with a flourish for the singer and then a pause for applause. Rather, Puccini lets the other Bohemians begin talking about Musetta while the flirtatious woman is still singing, and the aria evolves into a sextet.
One of the most innovative moments in the score comes at the opening of Act 3, where the music helps establish the cold, empty frozenness of deep winter, quite different from the Christmas Eve warmth in the crowded café of Act 2. The music features descending, haunting open 5ths on flute and harp, with cello beneath. Critics have compared this music to French impressionistic compositions.
Several other scenes in the score of La Bohème demonstrate Puccini’s genius at maintaining a multitude of simultaneous dramatic and vocal lines. Note the individual attention to all six main characters as well as to the many-tiered chorus in the Act 2 Café Momus scene. His skill in layering is again evident in the quartet that concludes Act 3, which begins with the sentimental characters, Rodolpho and Mimì, saying farewell to each other. They are interrupted by an argument between Marcello and Musetta as they explode out of a café. The two duets of contrasting nature occur simultaneously yet harmoniously.
That may sound complicated, but La Bohème, all told, is a wonderfully easy opera to listen to. Puccini is a master of arching, emotion-filled melodic lines, and he always keeps the plot moving, with inventive music that communicates the range of emotions these young characters experience. Murger’s story draws for us a portrait of young people entering adulthood and maturing through their experiences in living, images we process intellectually. Puccini’s music brings us closer to those experiences by helping us feel their potent emotions. No matter our age, La Boheme transports us into the fresh joys and poignant sorrows of young adulthood. As critic Arthur Symons wrote of Puccini’ La Bohème, “His work has the stuff of youth, and youth is eternal.”