02 Oct 2017

la bohème – Arriving at the Libretto & Synopsis

by Dr. Ross Hagen

Murger’s collection of stories holds both significant problems and significant potential for anyone seeking to bring it to the stage. On the one hand,  Scènes de la vie de bohème is a very crowded work, packed with entirely too many characters and scenarios to be effectively staged in any coherent fashion. However, this excess of raw material also creates the opportunity to pick and choose new ways through the work, provided that exacting fidelity to the original is set aside. Puccini and his librettists also had to consider the fact that Murger’s work already existed in two competing formats: the original novel and the stage play by Barrière. Further, the Italian audience knew La Vie de la bohème largely through a popular 1872 translation by Felice Camerone that connected Bohemianism with social revolt, inspired specifically by the socialist government of the Paris Commune that ruled the city for a few months in 1871 before being quashed by the regular French Army.  While Puccini’s writing team of Luigi Illica and Giacomo Giacosa certainly intended to continue the Bohemian tradition of jabbing at respectable society, they were not interested in this sort of political engagement. As a result, they set their version of the drama safely in the 1830s, away from current political concerns.

Puccini also had to deal with a rival production by Ruggero Leoncavallo that was produced in Venice in the following year, a fact that produced a bit of a scandal in the papers in March 1893 and resulted in a lasting schism between the composers. Although there are some competing accounts, Leoncavallo had evidently already written a libretto based on Murger’s novel by the time he discussed it with Puccini, and had possibly even offered it to him, which would make sense as Leoncavallo had worked on the libretto for Puccini’s previous opera Manon Lescaut. This conflict between the two composers occasioned a brief war of letters in the press, with Leoncavallo claiming that his completed libretto meant that he had already staked a claim to the subject. Puccini countered by claiming that he had been working on the opera without knowledge of Leoncavallo’s libretto and suggested that both produce their respective operas and let the public make their decisions. However, Puccini’s publisher Ricordi did apparently inquire covertly as to the possibility of purchasing exclusive rights from Murger/Barrière as a way to sabotage Leoncavallo’s production.  It turned out that the novel and play were in the public domain, so this avenue was closed to them. There is also some question as to whether Puccini had actually started working on his opera before he talked with Leoncavallo or if he had truly been ignorant of the other composer’s work, as he claimed in his letter. Puccini’s librettists Illica and Giacosa had certainly already been working on a treatment though. Ultimately, Leoncavallo accepted Puccini’s challenge, although the deal was likely sweetened by the possibility of further engagements from Puccini’s publisher Ricordi. Even though both composers were working independently, their libretti wound up fairly similar and use many of the same episodes from Murger’s original novel. Both of them also end with Mimì’s death following her reconciliation with Rodolfo, as did the Barrière stage adaptation.  However, while Puccini’s Bohème became one of the mainstays of the operatic repertoire, Leoncavallo’s Bohème is rarely performed.

In creating the libretto, Illica and Giacosa drew from Murger’s original largely for the first and last acts of the opera, with Illica arranging the scenarios and Giacosa composing the actual verses. In the first act, they borrowed and adapted several small episodes across various chapters. The final act draws extensively from a pair of chapters in the novel and also generally follows the action of the Barriere’s stage adaptation. The two middle acts, however, are mostly newly invented and bear little relationship to either Murger’s novel or the stage play.

Act 1 – a garret (a garret is a cramped top floor attic apartment found in houses or large residential buildings, particularly in European cities like Paris)

The opera opens with Rodolfo and Marcello in their garret, with Marcello working on a painting and Rodolfo staring pensively out the window. This inauspicious beginning is actually fairly significant in operatic history because it thrusts the audience directly into the middle of the scene without any sort of prologue or other expository material. Marcello complains of the cold and they resolve to burn Rodolfo’s five-act drama to gain some fleeting warmth. The philosopher Colline arrives with a pile of books, and complains that he has not been able to pawn them because the shops are closed for Christmas Eve. Two boys then arrive with food, wine, cigars, and wood along with the composer Schaunard. Schaunard explains how he came to be suddenly flush due to a bizarre job in which a wealthy man paid him to play his violin at a neighbor’s parrot until the bird died…although Schaunard ultimately had to poison the bird. The other three are so engaged with setting the table for their feats that they hardly listen to Schaunard, until he implores them to save the food for another day and head out to the bustle of the Latin Quarter.

Then, a knock on the door signals the entrance of the old landlord Benoît, arrived to claim overdue rent. After the group plys him with wine and flattery, Benoît begins to discuss his amorous conquests, but at the mention of his wife the group denounces him in mock moral indignation and shove him out of the room.  Schaunard, Colline, and Marcello depart, but Rodolfo stays behind momentarily to finish an article. As he sits down to write, Mimì knocks on the door asking for a light for her candle, along with a brief preview of her theme. Mimì almost immediately faints, but Rodolfo revives her with a few splashes of water. He provides her with a sip of wine and lights the candle, but after she thanks him and goes to leave she realizes that her key is missing. Mimì’s candle goes out a second time and Rodolfo covertly extinguishes his own, leaving them both in the dark. They search for the key, which Rodolfo quickly finds and puts in his pocket, denying that he has found anything. Rodolfo accidentally-on-purpose touches her hand and remarks on its coldness, setting off his famous monologic aria “Che gelida manina” in which he tells her of his life as a contentedly impoverished poet and dreamer.

Rodolfo ends by asking Mimì to tell him about herself, and her response is almost the polar opposite of his expansive description of his life and Bohemian stance: “Yes, they call me Mimì, but my name is Lucia.” The music underlines this contrast by moving from the fully-voiced chord that ends Rodolfo’s aria to a single melodic line. Mimì describes her life in fairly prosaic terms, telling Rodolfo of her work as a seamstress and her delight in small things, and only approaches Rodolfo’s emotional intensity when she describes the coming of spring. She finishes by stating in almost spoken passage that she’s nothing more than a neighbor disturbing him late at night.

They are then interrupted by Rodolfo’s friends shouting at him from the courtyard. He stalls for a minute and then goes back to Mimì for the duet “O soave fanciulla” in which they realize they have fallen in love. Mimì suggests that she might go with Rodolfo and his friends, Rodolfo counters that they could stay in on account of the cold. They profess their love and leave arm in arm, repeating the words “Amor! Amor!” after they’ve disappeared. (Note that in this particular cinematic staging, they ultimately disappear back into Mimì’s room first instead of going out, which rather changes the tone of the evening)

Act 2 – The Latin Quarter

Act 2 opens with a brisk fanfare and a bustling crowd scene of street sellers, crowds, and shops in the Latin Quarter. Given that it picks up basically where Act 1 left off, some have considered that the entire second act serves as a sort of concluding scene for the first. It can also be considered as a concertato finale, an intense sonic climax that typically falls at the midpoint of an opera and had been a standard feature at least since the era of Rossini. Concertato finales typically begin with a busy and interactive movement that features lots of dialogue and parallel solos, a slow largo section, and then a concluding section with further activity building to a climax. In this respect, the second act is more conventional than the first, which makes some sense given that it was essentially freely invented by Illica and Giacosa and has only a few connections with any of the episodes in Murger’s novel. The overlapping melodic lines and conversations in this act are characteristic of a conventional concertato finale, yet amidst all the hustle and bustle, Puccini provides moments that focus particularly on Mimì and Rodolfo. After a bit of shopping, in which Rodolfo buys Mimì a bonnet, the crew settles in at Cafe Momus and Rodolfo introduces Mimì to Marcello, Colline, and Schaunard, declaring that he is a poet and she is the poetry.

All of this builds to a satisfactory imbroglio once Marcello’s ex-lover Musetta shows up with her elderly admirer and patron Alcindoro, much to Marcello’s chagrin. Musetta evidently enjoys spending Alcindoro’s money and treats him like a lapdog, but she has also grown weary of the old man and decides to attempt to win back Marcello’s attention. Musetta then sings a fairly risqué song, “Quando me’n vo,” (“Musetta’s Waltz”) which is the main solo number of the second act and also provides the largo section found in traditional concertato finale. In it, Musetta describes how she enjoys provoking the desires of everyone she passes by. Marcello requests that his friends tie him to his chair, in reference to Odysseus’ attempt to hear the songs of the sirens. Mimì then declares that for all of Musetta’s posturings, it is obvious to her that she is passionately in love with Marcello, while Rodolfo makes a rather dark remark that he is not one who is apt to forgive constantly, foreshadowing the jealousy that will undo their relationship. In order to get rid of Alcindoro, Musetta feigns a pain in her foot and sends him off to fetch her a new shoe, after which she and Marcello embrace passionately, even as he declares her a siren. The group then goes to leave, only to realize that they are out of money for the bill. Musetta asks that their bill be combined with Alcindoro’s and they steal off into the night by joining up with a crowd following a military parade. The crowd sings of the finery of the drum major while the Bohemian crew instead praises the glories of Musetta. Alcindoro returns to find his arm candy has stolen off into the night and left him with an enormous bill, and the act ends with a final statement of the fanfare theme that began it.

Act III – At the toll gate at the Barrière d’Enfer (late February)

The act opens on a bleak snowy scene with an atmospheric drone and a light melody, as road sweepers ask the customs officer for entry. From the tavern we hear richer music and fragments of Musetta’s waltz before milkmaids and peasants arrive. The orchestra then plays the first segment of Mimì’s motive, and she arrives, disheveled and disoriented, and asks for Marcello. Marcello invites her to come inside, but she says she cannot if Rodolfo is there because they quarreled the previous night over his constant jealousy (“O buon Marcello, aiuto”).  Mimì’s lament flowers into a lush soprano-baritone duet until she is overcome with coughing. From here the drama of the act unfolds progressively, becoming more intense and musically complex.

Rodolfo awakens and Mimì hides so as not to cause a scene, although she remains close to overhear their conversation. Rodolfo announces his intention to leave Mimì because of her coquettishness, describing how she flirted with a Viscount who made eyes at her. This remark is in reference to an episode in an act that Illica and Giacosa originally prepared to go between Acts 2 and 3, but that Puccini decided not to use in the final composition. In it, the Bohemians throw a party at Musetta’s eviction and Mimì dances a quadrille with a Viscount. However, Marcello doesn’t quite buy it, Rodolfo finally admits that his jealousy is all for show and that Mimì is in fact fatally ill (“Mimì è tanto malata”), and he is trying to drive her away so she can seek a wealthier suitor who can provide her with a more comfortable life. He feels remorse that his poverty is making her illness worse. As Mimì listens and the melodies of the three intertwine, her crying and coughing reveal her to Rodolfo, and the two embrace. Marcello overhears Musetta laughing with someone in the tavern and he rushes in to confront her.

Mimì starts off the climactic quartet of the act proclaiming that she is going to leave and go back to her life sewing flowers. The music beginning this section hints at her easily recognizable “Mi chiamano Mimì” motif, but also contains snatches of other parts of her first aria. She asks Rodolfo to gather her belongings and leave them with the concierge but that he might keep her bonnet as a souvenir. She finishes by saying “Addio, senza rancor,” or “goodbye, without resentment. As they say their goodbyes, they begin to sing of the pain of being alone in winter as opposed to the warmth of spring. Mimì and Rodolfo’s farewell is interrupted when Musetta and Marcello burst out of the tavern in full quarrel. The musical and thematic distance between these two juxtaposed couples is extreme, with Mimì and Rodolfo declaring their love and ultimately deciding to stay together until spring while Marcello and Musetta bicker and break up over a triviality.  The transitions between the two could be jarring, but Puccini places the arguments in between the longer and more lyrical phrases of the two lovers. At the end, Marcello and Musetta storm off separately while Mimì and Rodolfo leave together, sentimentally declaring that they will part when it is once again the season for flowers.

Act IV: At the garret (the same scene as Act I)

Act IV begins in a similar tableau to Act I, with Rodolfo and Marcello at work in their garret apartment and discussing recent sightings of Musetta and Mimì. As Rodolfo begins his nostalgic reverie “O Mimì tu più non torni”, Marcello describes how he can’t seem to paint anything except Musetta’s face. The duet reaches a climax when Rodolfo pulls out Mimì’s bonnet. As in Act I, Colline and Schaunard arrive with food and good times, although this time there is only a loaf of bread and a single herring. They all indulge in a mock melodrama, including a dance and a battle, that is a bit of a dig at earlier 19th-century opera. All of this comes to a crashing halt when Musetta arrives with Mimì, who is gravely ill. Rodolfo carries her in, accompanied by an intense and chromatic version of Mimì’s motif, and Musetta describes how she encountered Mimì on the street and brought her. Mimì begins to feel a little bit better, and Puccini intertwines Rodolfo and Mimì’s arias from the first act to bring this section to a close.

The other Bohemians share anxious comments though, realizing that they have nothing in the house that could help and that Mimì does not have long. Mimì asks for a muff to keep her hands warm, and then realizes that all of her friends are with her. She also implores Marcello to remember that Musetta is good, and Musetta gives Marcello her earrings so he can sell them in order to buy a cordial and get a doctor. Musetta then goes to buy Mimì a muff for her hands, noting that it might well have been her last wish. Colline, who has been pensively standing by, takes off his overcoat and says an ironically dramatic farewell to his favorite garment (“Vecchia, zimarra, senti”) before heading off to the pawn shop. It’s a particularly striking moment also for its simplicity and relatively thin texture. Colline and Schaunard then leave Mimì and Rodolfo alone.

Once alone, Mimì and Rodolfo embrace and kiss as the orchestra luxuriates in the climactic theme from Rodolfo’s aria in Act I, and then the music makes a sudden shift to minor for Mimì’s aria “Sono Andati.” The thin orchestral texture, even pacing, and descending parallel motion in the melody and the bass create an evocative musical portrait of Mimì’s decline, even as she lays forth her most expressively emotional passage in the opera, declaring that Rodolfo is her entire life. She asks Rodolfo if she is still beautiful, and Rodolfo compares her beauty to a sunrise. Puccini and co. then turn the screws on us a little bit more when Mimì corrects Rodolfo, saying he should instead compare her to a sunset. Mimì then reprises a little of her aria from Act I and the two recount their first meeting, and the hunt for her key, until she is overtaken by another coughing fit.

Schaunard rushes back into the room to assist, followed almost immediately by Marcello and Musetta, who have arrived with the medicine and the muff. Marcello says that the doctor is also enroute. Mimì takes the muff and drifts off to sleep. Marcello warms the cordial while Musetta prays, but when Schaunard goes over to check on Mimì he discovers that she has died and informs Marcello. Just then, Colline returns with the money from pawning his coat and gives it to Musetta. He and Rodolfo have a brief spoken conversation before Rodolfo notices Marcello and Schaunard and asks why they are staring at him. The horns then ring out a fortissimo death knell before a luxurious reprisal of “Sono andati” as Rodolfo runs to Mimì and cries out her name.