World premiere: Teatro Regio, Turin, 1896
Paris in the 1920s
ACT I In their Latin Quarter garret, the nearly destitute painter Marcello and poet Rodolfo try to keep warm on Christmas Eve. They are soon joined by their roommates—Colline, a philosopher, and Schaunard, a musician. Their landlord, Benoit, comes to collect the rent. Artfully dodging him, all but Rodolfo depart to celebrate at the Café Momus. As Rodolfo settles in to finish writing an article, he is interrupted by a knock at the door. The visitor is Mimì, a pretty neighbor, whose candle has gone out on the stairway. Asking for help, the two feel a spark of love between them. Happy to have found each other, they leave to join the other bohemians at Momus.
ACT II Amid the shouts of street hawkers near Momus, the bohemians enjoy a night on the town interrupted by Marcello’s former sweetheart Musetta on the arm of the elderly but wealthy Alcindoro. Enjoying the festivities, the holiday spirit reaches its peak when, trying to gain Marcello’s attention, Musetta loudly sings the praises of her own popularity. Sending Alcindoro off on a pretext, she finally falls into Marcello’s arms. The crowd and the bohemians look forward to the coming new year.
ACT III It is dawn on the snowy outskirts of Paris. Mimì arrives, searching for Marcello. When he appears, she tells him of her distress over Rodolfo’s incessant jealousy. Rodolfo, who has been asleep in a nearby tavern, comes outside. Mimì hides nearby while Rodolfo tells Marcello that he wants to separate from Mimì. Overcome with emotion, Mimì comes forward to say goodbye to her lover.
ACT IV Months later in the garret, Rodolfo and Marcello, now separated from their girlfriends, reflect on their loneliness. Colline and Schaunard bring a meager meal, and they all egg on each other, making the best of their situation. At the height of the hilarity, Musetta bursts in with the news that Mimì is outside, too weak to come upstairs. Rodolfo runs to her aid, and the group tries its best to care for her in what may be her final moments.
Adapted from the Metropolitan Opera
La più divina delle poesie è quella, amico, che c'insegna amare!
(The highest purpose of poetry is to teach us to love!)
Rodolfo, Act II of La Bohème
Art is a kind of illness. —Giacomo Puccini
Who would be next? Giuseppe Verdi had dominated Italian opera for almost five decades, and his operas continued to rule the world’s music halls. Few thought an aspiring composer from Lucca was destined to turn hearts and minds his way.
Born in 1856, Giacomo Puccini was part of a large family of musicians going back to the early 18th century. His first job, at age 14, was organist for the two churches of Lucca. However, when he heard Verdi’s Aida, it become his life’s mission to compose for the theater. A local benefactor financed his enrollment at the musical conservatory in Milan (1880-83).
While there, Puccini wrote his first opera, the one-act Le villi, which was entered in a competition. Though he didn’t win, composer-librettist Arrigo Boito and publisher Giulio Ricordi helped arrange a premiere of the opera in Milan on May 31, 1884. The work was a success. Puccini displayed his innate talent while lining up important advocates for his art. The failure and corresponding fiasco surrounding his first complete opera, Edgar (1889), might have ruined a less determined man, but the experience informed Puccini. Now the composer knew what he needed to succeed—an excellent libretto.
Two important outcomes accompanied 1893’s Manon Lescaut—an international success and Puccini’s first creative collaboration with librettists Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica. Together, they were about to produce a trilogy of operas, the success of which, then and to this day, would dwarf anything ever seen.
That the composer was destined to produce the definitive operatic incarnation of Henri Murger’s episodic novel Scènes de la vie de bohème was a long shot. For one thing, the great Verdi had to be given the first right of refusal. Then it was learned that Ruggero Leoncavallo, the composer of Pagliacci (1892), had taken on the subject as well. "Let him compose. I will compose. The audience will decide," declared Puccini.
La Bohème (1896) eventually took the world by storm, and Puccini was hailed as the true successor to Verdi. After producing Tosca (1900) and Madama Butterfly (1904) to enormous acclaim, Puccini’s life began to imitate his art. In 1909, his wife Elvira accused him of having had an affair with their maid, Doria, who ultimately committed suicide. This took a devastating toll on the composer.
Puccini composed the cowboy opera The Girl of the Golden West (1907), which successfully premiered at the New York Metropolitan Opera in 1910. This was the height of his success. Soon after this, Puccini began to be criticized by a new generation of Italian composers for his "bourgeois mentality, lack of ideals, and pure commercialism" (New Grove).
Puccini was haunted by the success of the Bohème/Tosca/Butterfly trilogy and grew to resent its popularity somewhat. Still, that resentment did not keep him from being a frequent guest of the operas’ productions throughout Europe.
While suffering from cancer of the throat, Puccini continued to work on his final opera, the lavish and exotic fairy tale Turandot. It remained unfinished at his death in 1924 but was completed by Franco Alfano and premiered in 1926 with Arturo Toscanini conducting. On that occasion, the great maestro ended the opera at the point where Puccini had been forced to stop. Toscanini then turned from the podium and declared to the packed house, “Here Death triumphed over art.”
La Bohème: Recommended Recordings
Bjorling / De Los Angeles / Amara/ Merrill / Beecham, recorded in 1956 by EMI / RCA
Naxos mono 8 111249/50 or Regis RRC2075
Pavarotti / Freni / Harwood / Panerai / von Karajan, recorded in 1972
Decca 421 049-2DH2
Villazón / Netrebko / Cabell / Daniel / de Billy, recorded live in 2007
DG 477 6600GH2
Raimondi / Freni / Martino / Panerai / von Karajan / Zeffirelli/ La Scala, recorded in 1965
DG DVD 073 4071GH (PCM stereo and DTS 5.1)