Major Operas | La bohème by Giacomo Puccini | Turn of the Century

The Bohemian Life

Puccini’s first work following the overwhelming triumph of Manon Lescaut was immediately beset by problems. Leoncavallo had already begun preparations on the same scenario and, on hearing of Puccini’s choice of subject, publicly berated his rival and friend and claimed priority over the project. Puccini responded calmly by declaring that both composers should go to work and allow the public to be the final arbiters.

In dealing with characters from the lower social strata and in its attempts to portray the drama in as realistic a manner as possible, the opera belongs in part to the so-called verismo tradition that began with Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana. Puccini’s use of artisans enables him to bridge the gap smoothly between the stark hardship of the characters’ lives and the heightened emotions of their relationships. His music moves seamlessly from the conversational – even including unpitched spoken interventions – to the soaringly melodic. La bohème is probably Puccini’s most popular opera. Its blend of passion, tragedy and humour, tied together with a colourful, sensual score, is supremely alluring. The opera rarely fails to draw the listener entirely into its world.

Composed: 1894–95
Premiered: 1896, Turin
Libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, after Henry Murger’s novel Scènes de la vie de bohème

Act I

Marcello, a painter, and Rodolfo, a poet, are shivering in their Parisian garret and cannot work for the cold. Rodolfo’s play is burning on the stove when the philosopher Colline enters. The musician Schaunard arrives with food, wine and wood bought with money from a curious commission to play to a parrot. Since it is Christmas Eve, he says they ought to eat out. They are disturbed by Benoît, who comes to collect the overdue rent. They ply him with drink, flatter him and throw him out when he drunkenly confesses that he cannot abide his wife. Rodolfo stays behind to finish an article while the others wait downstairs. Mimì knocks at the door, asking for a light for her candle. As Rodolfo helps her to a chair, since she is clearly unwell, she drops the candle and her key. He lights her candle, but it goes out again when she cannot find the key. He soon finds it, but pretends to carry on searching until they touch hands in the dark. He introduces himself and she tells of her lonely life as a seamstress. His friends call on him to hurry and he asks them to save two places at the Café Momus. Turning, he sees her framed in the moonlight and they realize they are in love.

Act II

On the way to the Café Momus, Rodolfo buys Mimì a bonnet. The others find a table and settle down. Rodolfo introduces Mimì and they order food and wine. Parpignol pushes his cart of toys past them, chased by children. As the friends are about to drink a toast they hear Musetta, Marcello’s on-off lover, who enters...

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