13 Sep 2017

To Be Young, In Love, and In Paris

I don’t understand the Parisians
Making love every time they get the chance
I don’t understand the Parisians
Wasting every lovely night on romance

This charming lament comes to us from a girl named Gigi—the gawky teenager poised on the brink of womanhood in Hollywood’s 1959 Best Picture Oscar winner (Gigi). Her words are funny precisely because we do understand the Parisians. We know that they are surrounded by the joys and sorrows of love in the most romantic city on earth… that to be young, in love, and in Paris is a universal ideal of romance. And we know that soon, inevitably, Gigi will know it, too.
Puccini’s swooningly emotional evocation of young Parisians in love has made La bohème, by some reckonings, the most popular opera ever composed. The story of the lovers Mimì and Rodolfo and their band of friends ends sadly, with Mimì’s death. Still, it is far gentler than the gritty operas—often violent and shockingly sexualized—that brought Puccini to prominence as the foremost composer of Verismo (“realistic”) operas. The turn away from romanticism and idealism toward realism was reflected in books ranging from Balzac’s La Comédie humaine and Zola’s Germinal to the novels of Charles Dickens and stories of Guy de Maupassant; on the opera stage, Bizet’s 1875 masterpiece Carmen shocked respectable Parisians with its frankness, opening the way for Puccini’s close colleagues Leoncavallo and Mascagni. Their accounts of sex, squalor, and street life in Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci astounded audiences in 1890, as Carmen had 15 years earlier. In 1893 Puccini’s first big hit, Manon Lescaut, grafted an elegant veneer onto an equally sordid story. By 1895, when Puccini composed La bohème, opera goers were eager for just such a music-drama as this—one that combined a realistic account of illness and the privations of urban poverty with a glowingly sympathetic portrayal of young love.
Henri Murger, the source for the episodes dramatized in La bohème, wrote from firsthand experience. Like Puccini’s Rodolfo (and like the George Orwell of Down and Out in Paris and London), Murger was born to financial privilege and spent time “slumming” for the sake of his art; he spent the 1840s writing now-forgotten poetry while living in a series of frigid attic apartments and hotel rooms in Paris’s Latin Quarter, an area that housed the lower class and a large student population. If Murger’s hardships were real, his choices suggest a certain dilettantism…a kind of willful wantonness. His disapproving father withheld financial support, forcing Henri to resort to writing personal essays to help pay the rent. Urged on by a friend, he produced some thirty installments entitled Scènes de la vie de bohème, which were published in 1848 in the satirical Parisian periodical Le Corsaire. The following year these vignettes, which together told a realistic and largely autobiographical story of life and love on the seamy Left Bank, were rewritten as a play. Its tremendous success secured Murger sufficient income to move to the more respectable side of the Seine.
Although Murger died relatively young, his stories have endured. His use of the word “bohemian” came to identify for later generations the poverty-stricken, footloose lifestyle of aspiring young artists and youth in rebellion. It’s easy to see why these tales, when animated by Puccini’s genius, are irresistibly popular. Who hasn’t experienced the pleasures and pains of everyday life? The vicissitudes of hardship, poverty, and despair? The pleasures of a good meal and the company of friends? Murger’s stories were so apt for this purpose that in the space of nine years they inspired operas by three different composers. Only Puccini’s remains in the standard repertory.
La bohème’s enduring appeal is not only that it is a timeless tale with which we can identify; it is that Puccini and his librettists have captured, in word and music, the story and its characters. The bohemian life was something Puccini could write and compose about; he had lived in a garret apartment as a student at the Milan Conservatory, and for a time shared it with Mascagni, composer of Cavalleria rusticana. His first two operas had been disappointing failures, but from them, he had learned that a bad libretto could ruin even a good story and a better-than-average score. The opera that followed, Manon Lescaut, was his first big hit and had no fewer than seven different writers, including the composer Leoncavallo and Puccini himself. Two of its librettists, Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, worked with him on his next three operas, all of which have achieved lasting success.
Nonetheless, collaboration with Puccini did not always go smoothly. He was demanding in his attention to detail and demanded constant revision, often finishing an opera’s orchestration before finalizing the vocal lines. Yet this attention to detail is Puccini’s genius: every word and note in La bohème serves the characters and the story. The transitions from conversational exchange and crowd banter to arias, duets, and quartets and back again, flow with an appealing naturalness. The characters reveal their thoughts and feelings, and events in the story are believable.
La bohème is shaped around two love stories, the fragile new love between the poet Rodolfo and Mimì, his downstairs neighbor, and the tempestuous, on-again-off-again affair between the painter Marcello and Musetta, the beautiful coquette. But the center of our attention is Mimì, not a queen or courtesan, but a humble seamstress who embroiders flowers on bonnets and other garments. She’s a common working woman, apparently simple in her desires, yet not as innocent as she initially seems. Her love affair with Rodolfo is complicated by his jealousy and his realization that she suffers from late-stage consumption, which is only worsened by their poverty and the cold—themes that recur throughout the opera.
Surprisingly, Puccini’s use of melody subjected him to criticism; he has been accused of succumbing to sentimentalism and being an unworthy successor to earlier great Italian composers. But Puccini’s sense of theater is a glory of his music. Rather than framing displays of vocal agility such as one finds in Bellini or Rossini, his melodies are constructed in gentle, step-like intervals that make his lyrical arias and duets some of the most easily recognizable in opera. In bohème Puccini fully established his
signature style, which is heard in the rhythmic relationship between the vocal lines and the orchestration. Both orchestration and vocal parts are full of color, and in La bohème Puccini begins to use particular instruments, as well as tempo, for descriptive effect. And finally, leaving nothing to chance, Puccini wrote copious instructions on his scores for the conductor.
La bohème was not an immediate success. Critics were unappreciative at its world premiere in Turin in 1896. London’s Covent Garden refused to mount it when first offered the opportunity, and a 1924 American textbook edition of Scènes de la vie de bohème even omitted the stories of Mimì and Musetta, considering them inappropriate for college students. But bohème’s (and Puccini’s) success was soon confirmed, championed by conductor Arturo Toscanini and tenor Enrico Caruso. In a more recent tribute to bohème’s appeal, Jonathan Larson based his rock-opera Rent on it, setting the action in New York’s East Village with Mimì as an HIV/AIDS patient. Rent premiered in New York exactly one hundred years after La bohème’s opening in Turin.
Michael Clive’s writing on music and the arts has appeared in publications throughout the U.S. and in the U.K., as well as online articles (for Classical TV.com and Classical Review) and television (for the PBS series Live From Lincoln Center). He is program annotator for the Utah Symphony, the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Pacific Symphony, and is editor-in-chief of The Santa Fe Opera.