Explore La bohème
Welcome to a curated selection of content about Pacific Opera Victoria’s 2018 production of Puccini’s La bohème. One of the most loved operas of all time, La bohème is a gorgeous, nostalgic slice of life about a group of young friends at that time of life when everything is new, and love, adventure, and heartbreak are just around the corner.
Here are articles from our Keynotes Newsletter, programme notes from the Conductor and Stage Director, and selections from media reviews.
Enjoy this recently added video excerpt from our 2018 production of La bohème. Musetta sings “Quando me’n vo” to command the attention of Marcello, and she most definitely does not want to be ignored.
Bohemia: A State of the Heart
Unlike many of Puccini’s operas, La bohème is named not for a girl, but for an almost mythical place – a time of life, a state of the heart.
It’s a sparkling portrayal of the Bohemian life – la vie de bohème – that free-spirited, romantic counterculture of starving artists in freezing garrets, meeting life with plucky camaraderie, youthful derring-do, plenty of love-making and heartbreak – and occasionally some work on their art.
The opera opens on a freezing Christmas Eve in Paris. Marcello, a painter, and Rodolfo, a poet, burn one of Rodolfo’s plays to keep warm. Colline, a philosopher, and Schaunard, a musician, turn up. Schaunard has some money from a gig and brings food, wine, and enough cash for a celebration at the lively Café Momus, where they inevitably run into Marcello’s on-again, off-again, girlfriend, the coquettish Musetta.
Meanwhile, Rodolfo meets the frail seamstress Mimi, and they fall passionately in love. But their tender romance is doomed, for Mimi is ill with consumption, and Rodolfo is too poor to help her.
We follow the lives of these young people as they struggle to make ends meet, flirt, fall in love, and break up – until the end, when the friends gather round to take care of the dying Mimi.
It is such a slight story. The characters are ordinary, unimportant.
Critic Spike Hughes has said, Until the appearance of La bohème the public’s experience of Love on the opera stage had been of a somewhat lofty emotion of more than life-size dimensions and usually with consequences which (keeping their fingers crossed) the public could reasonably regard as unlikely to apply to them…
But with La bohème they were introduced for the first time to a world with which they were familiar…
The action … was more than something that could have happened: most of it actually had happened, not only in the life of Henri Murger, but a great deal of it also in the life of the composer who set Murger’s novel to music.
The opera is taken from Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de bohème, a semi-autobiographical novel about life in the Latin Quarter of Paris during the 1840s. Murger (1822–1861) was still in his 20s when he began to write a succession of satirical sketches based on his own experiences and serialized in an obscure magazine called Le Corsaire.
In 1849 Murger joined forces with a young dramatist, Théodore Barrière, to develop the stories into a play, La Vie de bohème, which became a surprise hit. Murger then collected the stories, framing them with a prefatory exposé on the various classes of bohemians and a final chapter on life after the death of Mimi, and publishing them in 1851 as a novel. The proceeds allowed Murger to finally give up the Bohemian life and move into a nice bourgeois apartment.
As classical radio host Dyana Neal comments, Yes, the world’s most famous Bohemian abandoned his unheated garret, and had probably been aspiring to do so for years … For Murger and his contemporaries, Bohemia was merely a stop on the journey to a financially lucrative career, perhaps in the arts, perhaps not….
Murger continued to write until his death at the age of 38, but none of his subsequent works achieved the fame of Scènes de la vie de bohème.
A half century later, Puccini latched onto Murger’s work to create La bohème, which is based partly on the novel, partly on the play.
Puccini poured into the opera some of his own memories of student days in Milan, when he shared a room with a baker’s son named Pietro Mascagni (yes, that Mascagni, composer of Cavalleria Rusticana), and they pooled their pennies to buy the score of Parsifal, cooked beans in the only pot available – their washbasin – and marked a city map with areas to avoid because they might run into creditors. Like Colline in the opera, Puccini even pawned his coat at one point (not to help a dying friend, but, in Spike Hughes’ words, to take a young ballerina with an unreasonable appetite out to dinner).
Murger’s characters are recognizable composites of his various friends – artists, philsophers, writers – some of whom, too broke to afford wine, called themselves The Water Drinkers.
Puccini’s Mimi is drawn from two characters in Murger’s novel, both of whom die of consumption – Francine, a seamstress, and Mademoiselle Mimi, a fickle, materialistic flirt who is an amalgamation of several of Murger’s mistresses.
The Mimi that Murger describes is very unlike Puccini’s angelic, soft-focus heroine:
Rodolphe then met Mimi, whom he had formerly known when she was the mistress of one of his friends … Mademoiselle Mimi was very taking, not at all prudish, and could stand tobacco smoke and literary conversations without a headache…
At the end of a month Rodolphe began to perceive that he was wedded to a thunderstorm, and that his mistress had one great fault. She was a “gadabout,” as they say, and spent a great part of her time amongst the kept women of the neighborhood.
The unnamed author of an introduction to the 1883 English edition of the novel was more direct, calling Mimi a shameless little hussy.
The character of Rodolphe in Scènes is a disarmingly frank self-portrait of Murger. Like Rodolfo in the opera, Rodolphe/Murger wrote for a hatmakers journal, Le Castor (The Beaver). Unlike the romantic youth in the opera, Murger’s Rodolphe is prematurely bald and sports a combover. Murger describes him as a young man whose face could barely be seen for a huge bush of multicoloured beard. As an antithesis to this abundance of hair on his chin, early baldness had stripped his forehead, which looked like a knee, and a few hairs, so scanty that one could have counted them, tried in vain to hide the nakedness.
Murger’s novel is thoroughly entertaining, especially if we are familiar with the opera. It brims with cynical, trenchant observations on the folly and charm of these characters.
In his preface Murger wrote, Bohemia is a stage in artistic life; it is the preface to the Academy, the Hôtel Dieu, or the Morgue. Eventually, like Murger, most of his characters make their escape into the next stage of life – respectability.
At the end of the novel, Colline inherits money, marries a rich woman and devotes his attention to giving soirées and eating cake. Schaunard becomes a successful writer of popular songs. Marcello lands an exhibit of his paintings, sells one to an ex-lover of Musetta’s, and moves to a better apartment. Rodolfo publishes his first book and launches a writing career. Even Musetta, the freest spirit of them all, after one last week of drinking, dancing, and lovemaking, marries a postmaster.
As Dyana Neal observes, Some live the carefree, financially precarious Bohemian life well into middle age, but most of us, like Murger, reach a point where poverty no longer seems quite so romantic. In a well-heated living room, the modern lapsed Bohemian can read Scènes de la vie de Bohème while curled up on a plush couch, sipping a fine Shiraz. Henri Murger wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Puccini's Most Nearly Perfect Opera
When La bohème premiered at Turin’s Teatro Regio in February 1896, under the baton of the very young Arturo Toscanini, the audience, though warm, was not as delirious as they had been over Puccini’s previous opera, the mega-hit Manon Lescaut.
The critics were even less kind. Carlo Bersezio of La Stampa lectured in words that live on as a notorious example of a critic getting it completely wrong: Just as La bohème makes little impression on the hearts of its audience, it will leave no great mark on the history of Italian opera; and it would be a good thing if the composer, considering it a momentary error, will return to his proper path, persuading himself that this has been a brief detour in the road of art.
La bohème was also a victim of unfortunate timing. Just weeks earlier, Turin’s operagoers had seen Toscanini conduct the Italian première of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, a work at the opposite end of the operatic spectrum from Puccini’s little slice of life. In terms of musical texture, scale, subject matter, plot – even length – Götterdämmerung was a different animal. The Wagnerian behemoth made it almost impossible for anyone to judge La bohème on its own merits.
Fresh from the vision of Valhalla in flames and the gods destroyed, audiences were now asked to watch unimportant people making a living, going out with friends, shopping, paying the rent, and agonizing over an insignificant life snuffed out by a grubby little disease!
The librettists, Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, were the dream team brought in by Puccini’s publisher, Giulio Ricordi, to rescue Puccini’s Manon Lescaut after Puccini had torn through three other librettists. Giacosa, Illica, and Puccini went on to form the most successful composer/librettist team of Puccini’s career, working together on the great trio of La bohème, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly.
However, Puccini was maddening to work with and impossible to satisfy, meaning his librettists frequently threated to quit. Much of the credit for Bohème’s existence must therefore go to Ricordi, a masterful diplomat and babysitter. It was Ricordi who perceived Puccini’s talent early, took him under his wing, and cajoled him into focusing on his work instead of women, cars, and hunting. And it was Ricordi, a master of shuttle diplomacy, who regularly soothed Puccini’s browbeaten librettists.
But what makes La bohème completely irresistible whether we are just discovering it, or coming back to it after uncounted times of hearing it, is its music.
By the time the first act ends with that string of glorious love songs: Rodolfo’s Che gelida manina, Mimi’s Sì, mi chiamano Mimì, and the rapturous duet O soave fanciulla, one would think that surely the composer has shot his bolt. There cannot possibly be room for any more musical wonder in this opera.
But there is – the exuberant kaleidoscope of the second act Café Momus scene, Musetta’s provocative waltz, Quando m’en vò, the wintry radiance and looming tragedy of act 3, the poignant simplicity of Mimi’s gentle farewell Addio, senza rancore, Colline’s farewell to his overcoat as he goes to pawn it (Vecchia zimarra), and the final haunting echoes of those first love themes.
The music of La bohème beguiles us with its jollity, illuminates the commonplace moments of daily life, and sweeps us away with its passion. It sparkles with humour and charm, pours out lush, sumptuous melodies, and is by turns merry, tender, desperate, haunting, and unforgettably beautiful.
The result, according to music critic Michael Steinberg, is a wonderfully original opera, something the extreme familiarity of La bohème can keep us from noticing and appreciating… La bohème, in which Puccini came truly of age as an artist (at 37!), is a masterwork we too easily take for granted … a song about the frailty of love and happiness.
The première of La bohème on February 1, 1896, at the Teatro Regio was not a fiasco, but neither was it a triumph. The public received it warmly but not enthusiastically. The critics were not so polite … Puccini had taken a step back from his first major success Manon Lescaut; this was a light piece with no substance, was the consensus in the local papers. Might this reaction be due to the fact that only six weeks earlier the first Italian performance of Wagner’s epic Götterdämmerung was presented in the same theatre?
Soon after the première, however, La bohème was presented in other theatres in Italy and quickly gained popularity. Today it is one of the most popular operas of the standard repertoire. We love it for precisely the same reasons it was rejected by the Torinese critics.
The opera in four acts, or more precisely tableaux, is fast paced, terse, and full of verve. Puccini manages to keep the pace moving by using a somewhat conversational style of melodic writing. It’s not until Rodolfo and Mimi fall in love at first sight near the end of Act 1 that we get our first arias … and here again no long, drawn-out expositions, just two people introducing themselves.
Puccini doses out these more poetic moments beautifully and in perfect contrast to the rest of the scenes. Act 2 is a stroke of genius. The opening scene is a mastery of orchestral color and chorus writing – street vendors, children, couples out on the town, and café patrons all singing different phrases simultaneously. The result is a colorful theatrical scene of a Paris street on Christmas Eve, which prompted Claude Debussy to say that no one had depicted 1830’s Paris as vividly as Puccini in Act 2 of La bohème.
Puccini was certainly a man of the theatre and went through painstaking revisions of his works until he got it just right, even if it drove his librettists crazy. La bohème has been referred to as the perfect opera. It’s just the right balance of comedy, spectacle, pathos, and drama – not to mention beloved characters who take us along on their journey.
Timothy Vernon has put together another stellar cast, along with the brilliant creative team of Maria Lamont, Camellia Koo, and Kevin Lamotte. You are in for a great theatrical experience.
La commedia è stupenda!
Both Puccini and Murger were greatly influenced by their own “bohemian” youth, experiencing first hand the poverty and romance of this period of life, as well the dreams, energy, and creativity which accompany living in “Bohemia.” Puccini was so nostalgic for this period of his life that he choose the Murger novel (and subsequent play) as the subject for his next creation after the triumph of Manon Lescaut.
In the first half of the opera, one observes in the “Bohemians” all the classic qualities of this social group, accompanied by high jinks, fun, and carefree adventure – money and love always arrive at the right moment.
One can argue that “Bohemia” is a necessary stage for an artist, but it is a stage; at some point a kind of personal growth is necessary for a more mature understanding of the life experience. I would venture this was Puccini’s intention as the second half of the opera unfolds. Our protagonists cannot not escape the harsh realities of life any longer, and the looming death of Mimi takes centre stage dramatically.
The novel is fragmented and episodic, and the opera’s construction mirrors that to quite some degree. Puccini legendarily drove his librettists mad with his demands for rewrites and criticisms. A very important difference between the novel and the opera is the role of Mimi, who is a fusion of two characters from the book, and a much gentler and softer character than the originals. One can imagine that this change serves Puccini’s image of romantic “womanhood,” as well as creating a strongly sympathetic character whose death not only inspires grief and catharsis for the audience, but provokes an important dramatic development for the other characters.
Mimi’s death provides the main theme of the opera – the confrontation with death and loss, a breaking of an illusory existence, and a development towards a new more mature world view of life, art, and creation.
Puccini’s Bohemians have an irresistible joie de vivre; they live in the present, and the future is rosy – triumphs both artistic and romantic await them. As their story is told, emotional complexities present themselves, and real life unfolds with all its mystery and harsh truths. Their journey has an inexorable path that cannot be denied; it starts in illusion and ends with the bittersweet truths of the most fundamental kind, a confrontation with death and the fragility of life.
La Bohème is a show that has become an absolute staple of the opera calendar. You can often set your watch by how often a company produces it, so the challenge always becomes breathing new life into a show that is performed so often, by so many companies across the globe. Pacific Opera Victoria finds many clever, inventive ways to do this in their recent production.
Opening with an impressionist-like painting of Paris as the backdrop, this production takes place in the 1950s…
Overall, this production … brought some innovative touches to an opera that has been done countless times, without altering or taking away any of the charm that has made it so immortal. I think audiences who have seen Bohème a hundred times, and those who are coming to it for the first time will find a great deal to love about this production.
For the novice, La bohème … is an easy and entertaining introduction to the art form. It’s an accessible, archetypal opera chockful of the good stuff: jealousy, flirtations, declarations of love, festive crowd scenes, penniless artists in garrets, heroines dying romantic deaths. And Puccini’s beautifully melodic arias still sound as dewy and fresh as Paris in May.
POV’s La bohème is worth seeking out. Director Maria Lamont chose a more-or-less traditional approach, yet still has sparky fun with it. The capable cast is young and attractive… most will appreciate the wit, style and panache presented by Lamont and company.