02 Oct 2017

La bohème – Death and the Maidens

by Dr. Ross Hagen

Bohème’s Mimì is of course one the famous consumptive heroines of the opera stage alongside Violetta Valéry from Verdi’s La Traviata.  Indeed, Puccini and his collaborators attempted to avoid the parallels between the two characters even while approaching them in somewhat similar fashions, likely judging that comparisons with Traviata would be inevitable. After all, the operas both end with the heroine’s dramatic death and the anguish of her lover and friends. Yet their final moments are in some ways polar opposites. Violetta expires in a moment of false hope, noting that her pain is gone and declaring that she will live and singing a triumphant high note on the words “Oh Joy” before collapsing.  The dramatic irony of this moment of course only makes it the more heartbreaking, even if Verdi sacrificed some realism in the process. Mimì, on the other hand, slips away as her friends converse and pray over her. The drama of the death lies not in her actual passing but in Rodolfo’s delayed reaction to it, as he is the last of their friends to realize she has died. Yet both Puccini and Verdi caught on to a useful musical strategy in that they both pared down their orchestrations in the final scenes as a way to musically depict the workings of the disease. In Traviata this is most obvious in the measures immediately before Violetta’s death, in which it also sort of primes for the dramatic rush of her expiration. Puccini, on the other hand, really mines the expressive potential of his orchestration in these final scenes. In Mimì’s final aria, “Sono Andati,” Puccini scores the accompaniment only for the strings, accentuating Mimì’s fragility, while the constant even eighth-note rhythms convey both an air of solemnity and inevitability. Even when Puccini thickens the texture by adding winds and brass, the overall sound remains comparatively thin and frail. This is highlighted further by the fact that the melody and bassline slowly descend the full octave in parallel motion, which gives the effect of pulling the listener down as well. (We might compare this effect to the ground bass of Dido’s death aria in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas a couple of centuries prior) This quality is underscored when Mimì briefly reprises “Mi chiamano Mimì” and Puccini returns to solely string accompaniment, as in its initial introduction in Act I. Here, though, the thin texture (along with her softer echo of the phrase a whole step below) seems to musically portray her wasting away.

As Mimì and Violetta demonstrate, while operatic sopranos must of course be skilled at singing, they also must be good at dying. Indeed, much of the operatic repertoire is practically built on the corpses of its heroines. In addition to dying of illness, heroines commit suicide or sacrifice themselves (Rigoletto, Madame Butterfly, Tosca, Norma, Suor Angelica), are violently murdered (Carmen, Otello, Pagliacci), are driven insane (Lucia di Lammermoor), are driven insane and then violently murdered (Salomé), are exiled and die of dehydration (Manon Lescaut), or expire in a rush of transfiguring metaphysical ecstasy (Tristan und Isolde).  On the one hand, this isn’t particularly surprising, for what is tragedy without death?…or as Bugs Bunny put it, “Well what didja expect in an opera, a happy ending?!” The tragic fates of operatic heroines perhaps mirrors those of mothers in classic Disney films, who are usually dispatched early on (sometimes even before the film begins) in order to unmoor the young protagonists from home and force them into greater responsibilities and dangers. Similarly, wives and girlfriends in Hollywood action movies are typically murdered in order to provide dramatic motivation for the male protagonist’s quest for righteous revenge.  In opera, though, the death of the heroine is often the main event, and Puccini’s heroines often fall right before the final curtain, with little denouement or epilogue.

The musicologist Mosco Carner noted further that Puccini’s heroines all seemed to be of a type, each of them social outcasts who are tarnished in some fashion. Indeed, many of them are of questionable virtue. Yet Puccini also invests them with particularly endearing traits, rendering them tender, self-sacrificing, and even child-like. Many of these characters had more licentious and complicated aspects in their original sources, but Puccini mutes these in favor of white-washed versions that are more angelic and often downright chaste. There are none of the pathologies of other doomed opera heroines like Donizetti’s fragile Lucia or Strauss’ sexually aggressive Salomé. Carner argues that Puccini chose heroines of this nature because their “degraded position” enabled him to empathize more with them and identify with their personalities.

Yet there is also an impulse towards sadism in Puccini’s treatment of these ill-fated heroines that he has supposedly come to empathize with. This is perhaps most amplified in Puccini’s orientalist operas Madama Butterfly and Turandot. Cio-cio-san in Butterfly spends the entirety of the third act being repeatedly humiliated until her suicide, while the slave girl Liú in Turandot is tortured to the point that she commits suicide to avoid further torture. Carner approaches this from a Freudian standpoint, noting the frequent ambivalence of love and hate and also considering these “murders” might be a form of guilt transference. However, it is not entirely necessary to psychoanalyze Puccini for the reasons that his heroines are inevitably condemned to death. Even if Puccini does imbue his heroines with delicate gentleness and affection that makes their inevitable demises that much more painful to endure, in doing so he is far from an outlier in operatic tradition and Western entertainment. Opera stages and other media entertainments often function as a place for the symbolic enactment of gender roles and social norms, and the symbolic punishment of wayward yet sympathetic heroines is practically a standard plot point.  Even the natural deaths of consumptive heroines like Mimì and Violetta have an air of punishment to them, given the characters’ natures as social outcasts and sexual libertines.  Of course, innumerable plays, novels, films, and TV shows have also served as mock execution grounds for non-conformist female villains and victims. It is perhaps also not coincidental that these sorts of media products tend to blossom alongside growing emancipations of women in the real world, but even then it is not an easy question to determine whether such brutalities should be considered to be retributive backlashes or simply more honest and less hypocritical depictions of the lives and deaths of women in real life.

The musicologist Richard Taruskin perhaps put this question best when he asks whether Puccini’s success at depicting “great sorrows in little souls” serves to magnify the souls or mock the sorrows. Further, we might consider what the lasting popularity of these fairly cruel stories might say about us as audience members, since we obviously derive enjoyment and gratification from them. Or perhaps operagoers are just gluttons for this sort of masochistic emotional torment. While there is certainly dramatic satisfaction to be had from retribution and comeuppance when a villain receives just deserts, this kind of model doesn’t comport with Mimì or other Puccini heroines who are essentially victims of impossible situations. After all, the dramatic arc of La Bohème hinges on whether Rodolfo and Mimì will be reconciled before she dies, not whether a cure for tuberculosis will be found in time to save her. Aristotle and others argue that tragedies of this nature are cathartic, but that could also just be an attempt to sublimate bloodthirst and re-cast it as virtue. Whatever it is, it certainly seems to work because we keep coming back for more.