The Lubbock Symphony Orchestra will present two concert performances of Puccini’s opera on May 5-6. The program notes I’ve written for the occasion are below.
Puccini’s La Bohème is one of the very few operas that have transcended its genre. Virtually everyone loves it, even those who are indifferent to opera. First performed in 1896 at Turin’s Teatro Reggio under the direction of Arturo Toscanini; it initially received an indifferent response. Nevertheless it rapidly spread throughout the world reaching America the following year. It was performed by a pick-up company in Los Angeles in 1897. The Metropolitan Opera first performed it on tour in the same city three years later. It was first performed at the Metropolitan Opera House on December 26, 1900. New York’s two most important music critics gave proof to Giuseppe Verdi’s declaration that the only critic that counted was the audience.
WJ Henderson writing in the New York Times said, “We cannot believe that there is permanent success for an opera constructed as this one is.” Henry Krehbiel in the New York Tribune went even further, “La Bohème is foul in subject and fulminant, but futile, in its music.” There are still critics who deride Puccini’s masterpiece as common or cheap. After 1305 performances by the Met, far more than any other opera, we can firmly conclude that the audience has rendered a decisive verdict – La Bohème is a miracle of construction melody, wit, comedy, and pathos. Henderson and Krehbiel are dead; Bohème is still alive and triumphant.
Puccini’s unique genius was to set ordinary conversation to melodies that are beautiful, memorable, and apt. This unique skill is obvious in almost every note of La Bohème which is a story of ordinary people who labor under the common delusion that they are extraordinary. This delusion only applies to the four male principals. They are young, attractive, and certain never to make it. Eventually they will drift back to the bourgeoisie from whence they sprang.
The opera began life as a novel – Scènes de la vie de bohème by Henri Murger. It was then made into a play by Murger and Théodore Barrière. It is the play that the libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa is based, though most of the second and third acts are original inventions of the librettists. The opera follows the episodic nature of its source. Each act could stand alone as each tells its own story. The persistence of the main characters give the four acts unity.
There is another La Bohème, that of Ruggero Leoncavallo, the composer of Pagliacci. He claimed to have offered Puccini a complete libretto of the story. Puccini said he was well along on his own project and declined the libretto. Leoncavallo set his libretto to his own music. His La Bohème was premiered in 1897. Of course, it was overwhelmed by Puccini’s masterpiece then well on its way to conquering the operatic world. Leoncavallo’s opera, though it shrinks in comparison to Puccini’s, is not bad and likely would have found a space on the frontier of the operatic repertory had it not been overwhelmed by Puccini’s flawless work.
The French origin of the story is the reason its authors gave an Italian opera a French title. La Bohème, translates literally as Bohemian. A more meaningful English rendition would be The Bohemian Life. Despite the bohemian background the focus, as is true of most Puccini’s operas, is on the soprano and tenor – here the two lovers Mimi and Rodolfo. The three one act works he wrote for the Met in 1918 (Il Trittico) are the exceptions to this tendency. Puccini seems to have fallen in love with all his heroines and imagined himself as their lover, which explains why the leading soprano and tenor get the passionate music in most of his operas.
But there’s a lot more than ardent writing to La Bohème; it’s full of comic action and the feel of Paris during the reign of Louis Philippe. The first act is in a garret. It’s Christmas Eve and Marcello the painter and Rodolfo the poet are complaining about the cold. In an attempt at warmth they burn Rodolfo’s play. The other two Bohemians enter and amid a lot of horseplay Schaunard, the musician, relates how he was hired by an eccentric Englishman to play for him until his parrot died. In order to escape, Schaunard with the help of a serving girl gave the parrot poisoned parsley. This is the answer to the Trivia question, who dies in the first act of La Boheme. More comedy with the landlord who wants his rent, but gets kicked out of the garret instead.
The bohemians, save Rodolfo depart for the Latin Quarter to spend the money Schaunard earned from killing the Englishman’s parrot. Rodolfo stays behind and meets Mimi, a seamstress. They each sing a beautiful aria, fall in love, and exit with a glorious duet.
The second act is outdoors amidst a cyclone of holiday action. The four Bohemians and Mimi sit down for an al fresco dinner. Remember how cold they were indoors. I could not find a single Parisian restaurant that serves an outdoor meal on Christmas eve. The current average temperature in Paris on that day is close to freezing and the opera takes place before the onset of global warming. But this is opera and the scene needs an outdoor setting. The same people who were freezing in the first act now look as warm as hibernating bears.
The appearance of Marcello’s ex-girlfriend Musetta sets up one of opera’s greatest theatrical coups – their reconciliation. In a staged performance the audience always breaks into spontaneous applause when they get back together. It takes a great director to screw things up to the point where the audience doesn’t applaud. But I’ve seen it happen twice. Both times the director was a Broadway legend.
Act 3 begins and ends with the same chord which act like bookends for the scene. Here Mimi discovers that Rodolfo has left her not because of jealousy, but because she is very ill from tuberculosis and because his poverty precludes him caring for her. They agree to stay together until the Spring. The act ends with a double duet in which Marcello and Musetta violently quarrel and separate while Mimi and Rodolfo reconcile. The number is a piece of theatrical and musical magic.
The final act begins with the only tenor-baritone duet Puccini ever wrote. The two men miss their girlfriends. The two other bohemians enter and a mock sword fight ensues which is interrupted by Musetta and the mortally ill Mimi. After a brief interval she quietly dies. The opera end with Rodolfo sobbing her name twice. Her end is not tragic as Aristotle defines tragedy, rather it’s sad.
Puccini’s depiction of the quotidian has moved and resonated with audiences for a century and a quarter. La Bohème’s characters and music strike a chord of human recognition in the hearts of all but the most jaded of auditors. It is universal.