Music with Ease > 19th Century Italian Opera > La Bohème (Puccini)
An Opera by Giacomo Puccini
This was Puccinis fourth work for the stage. It was produced at Turin in 1896, and achieved an immediate success. Next year the Carl Rosa Company presented it in English at Manchester, and a few months later at Covent Garden. In 1899 it was sung at Covent Garden in Italian. Since then it has passed into the regular repertory of all the opera houses where it has been performed, and at the present day, with Melba as Mimi and Caruso as Rudolph, it invariably fills the house.
Mimi in Act 1 of La bohème. Her costume was designed by Adolfo Hohenstein (1854-1928) for the world premiere performance as the Teatro Regio di Torino on 1 February 1893.
The opera presents an impressionist picture of a community common to every clime. Its members have subscribed to the Epicurean principle: "Let us eat and drink to-day, for to-morrow we die." In a word, they live in and for the present. The librettists have drawn their material from Murgers novel. "La Vie de Bohème," selecting four characteristic scenes and reproducing the spirit rather than the letter of the original. The time is about 1820, in Paris.
ACT 1. -- The curtain rises on the bare attic occupied by that quartet of Bohemians, Rudolph the poet, Marcel the artist, Schaunard the musician, and Colline the philosopher. It is Christmas Eve, Rudolph is gazing out of the window; Marcel painting. The cold is so intense that they burn Rudolphs MS. drama to warm their frozen fingers. Presently Colline enters, throwing down a bundle of books he has failed to pawn. Then Schaunard joins the company, having had better fortune. With money given him by an Englishman he has bought provisions and wine. While the Bohemians are enjoying these, the landlord calls for the rent, and is surprised that his tenants can pay. They ply him with drink, get rid of him without paying what they owe, and then divide the sum among themselves.
Leaving Rudolph with pen in hand, the others go off to the Café Momus for supper. Rudolph is disturbed by a knock at the door. It is Mimi, the delicate little seamstress who lives in a tiny chamber near the roof. Her candle has gone out, and when Rudolph relights it the draught extinguishes both it and his own. The room is therefore in darkness. But the poet had noticed that the girl is very pretty, that her hands are unusually small, white, and beautiful. When the pair are groping on the floor for the key which Mimi has dropped, their hands meet, and Rudolph takes Mimis in his. He tells about his life and invites her confidence. They are mutually attracted and soon pledge their troth. Then they go out and join the others at the café.
ACT. 2 -- We are in a street in the Latin Quarter. On one side is the Café Momus. Mimi and the quartet of Bohemians are in the crowd. After a time they sit down to an al fresco supper. The fascinating Musetta and her elderly admirer, Alcindoro, arrive and seat themselves at another table. Musetta had quarrelled with Marcel and now wishes to be reconciled. Pretending that her shoe pinches, she sends Alcindoro to buy another pair, and when he is gone, turns to the artist and effusively embraces him. The four Bohemians then depart with the two ladies, leaving Alcindoro to pay the bill for the lot.
ACT 3. -- The scene is now the Barrière dEnfer. Mimi seeks Marcel at a tavern there, to consult him about Rudolphs unhappiness. Through a window Marcel shows the girl her lover asleep in the inn. Rudolph awakes and speaks to Marcel. Mimi hides and overhears. Rudolph loves Mimi truly, but his mad jealousy causes them both much misery. Moreover, Mimi is consumptive: Rudolph fears she is dying, and he is too poor to provide her with necessary luxuries, which a wealthy admirer could supply. Suddenly Mimis violent coughing reveals her presence, and Rudolph comes forward to embrace her. They agree to part, but not till "the roses blow." Meanwhile Marcel and Musetta have again fallen out, and they also decide to separate.
ACT 4. -- We are back in the attic. Mimi and Musetta have forsaken their old friends for rich lovers. Rudolph and Marcel feel very lonely, but keep up an appearance of brightness. The quartet are in a hilarious mood when they are interrupted by Musetta and the dying Mimi. The men are much affected. Musetta sends Marcel to sell her earrings to procure medical aid, while Colline goes off to pawn his coat. But Mimi, after a touching scene with her lover, passes quietly away before the doctor arrives. The friends are overwhelmed with sorrow, and the curtain falls with Rudolphs despairing cry, "Mimi! Mimi!" as he realises that his adored is no more.
The chief feature of the music is the masterly fashion in which the composer has caught the spirit of these four scenes and reflected it in his score. He has given continuity to the whole by his sense of atmosphere. The melodies are fresh and charming, though never particularly striking, and the themes are expertly handled. The characterisation is better than in any of his earlier works, the dramatic points are often made by very simple means, and the orchestration is clever and refined. The strength of the opera, however, lies in the continuity of the music and its spontaneous character.
La Bohème Poster
The beautiful cover of the music and words of the 1896 Italian edition of Puccini's opera, La Bohème, reproduced as an attractive poster.
Artist: Adolfo Hohenstein.
Buy this La Bohème poster