Opera in four acts
Libretto by Luigi Illica and Giacomo Giacosa based on incidents in the novel
Scènes de la vie de Bohème by Henri Murger, originally produced in serial form between 1847 and 1849
First performed at the Teatro Regio in Turin on 1 February 1896
Christmas Eve 1830.
In a cold Paris garret, Rodolfo, a poet, and Marcello, a painter, are at work. They are joined by two other friends, Colline, a philosopher, and Schaunard, a musician. Schaunard has earned a little money and suggests that they go out to eat. But Benoit, their landlord, arrives to collect the rent, so the friends ply him with drink, encourage him with some vulgar innuendo to boast about his love affairs, pretend to be shocked, and then ask him to leave. Marcello, Colline and Schaunard leave to find a place to eat (with Colline managing to fall down the stairs), but Rodolfo wants to stay and finish something that he is writing. The mood changes: the comedy had gone with the three friends and the drama is about to begin. There is a knock at the door – it is a young woman, a neighbour, wanting a light for her candle. Rodolfo lights the candle for her, but it is blown out, and she drops her door key. They search together for it on the floor, but when he finds it, Rodolfo slips it into his pocket without her noticing and continues with the search: then their hands touch in the darkness. This starts their love affair: they tell each other something of their lives. Rodolfo is confident, caring and gentle; Mimi – a truly new kind of operatic heroine – is hesitant, shy and tends to talk too much, but each is entranced by the other, they declare their love, then leave to join the other three for dinner.
Opera composers often appear on postage stamps
but this 1958 Italian issue marking the centenary of Puccini’s birth
depicts the Parisian garret which is the setting of the first and last acts of La Bohème
The Café Momus, later the same day. (The librettist Illica was concerned about the inconsistency of the friends complaining of the bitter cold in Act 1 and then happily sitting outside for a meal a few minutes later in Act 2: Ricordi, the publisher of the opera, reassured him that it did not matter. Not many opera-lovers notice the oddity, or, if they do notice it, care very much – as Julian Budden has commented, it is ‘a triumph of opera over dramatic realism’. And in reality, the Café Momus did not have an outside sitting area, but that doesn’t matter either.)
Rodolfo buys Mimi a little bonnet at a street market and introduces her to his friends, who are in high spirits, sitting outside the café and waiting for Rodolfo. A toy-seller passes by followed by a crowd of children. The friends discuss the nature of love, and Rodolfo reveals, almost in passing, that he has a rich uncle from whom he hopes one day to inherit a fortune. Mimi and Rodolfo are utterly absorbed in one another, and Rodolfo’s friends are delighted at his happiness. Then, in a burst of noise, an old flame of Marcello’s arrives, accompanied by an elderly and rich admirer. This old flame is Musetta. Annoyed by Marcello ignoring her, she creates a scene, to the embarrassment of her antiquated escort, Alcindoro. She sings a very flirty song, which wins Marcello over, and then she complains of a pain in her foot and sends Alcindoro off to buy her some new shoes. While he is gone, she and Marcello fall into one another’s arms. Then, accompanied by the noise of a passing military band, the bill arrives. Musette announces that Alcindoro will pay the bill, and they all leave in the wake of the military band. Alcindoro arrives back with a pair of new shoes to find the whole party gone and nothing left but the bill. (Illica wanted Alcindoro to have the final line of the act, but Puccini over-ruled him and just leaves Alcindoro speechless at the effrontery of the young people.)
Three months later.
Marcello and Musetta now share an apartment above a tavern near one of the city’s gates and, in an atmospheric scene, Puccini shows the early morning at this gate, with late revellers making their stumbling way home while early workers are arriving for another day of work in the city. Mimi arrives, looking for Marcello, who tells her that Musetta’s singing is more or less paying the rent – and that he is now painting inn-signs for a living. Mimi asks if Rodolfo is there and, learning that he is, explains to Marcello that Rodolfo’s intense jealousy is driving them apart. Marcello observes that they would be better apart, and explains that the relationship which he has with Musetta is based on singing and laughter, ‘These are the flowers of a love that lasts’, he says. Rodolfo then comes out and Mimi hides. Rodolfo tells Marcello that Mimi’s endless flirting is affecting him too deeply, but when Marcello presses him, Rodolfo admits that he loves her more than ever, but knows that she is ill and feels that she would stand more chance of regaining her health if she were to leave him and his cold room. Mimi’s coughing reveals her presence and Rodolfo embraces her tenderly. Marcello hears Musetta’s wild laughter from inside the tavern and goes in to find out what she is up to. Left alone, Mimi and Rodolfo agree that they should part when the warmer weather returns in the spring (‘when the flowers come into bloom again’), not embittered, but as friends who have shared great happiness.
Mimi and Rodolfo have separated, as have Marcello and Musetta. Rodolfo and Marcello are back sharing the garret and are in good spirits despite having seen each other’s girls with wealthy new admirers. The genuine high spirits of Act 1 are now tinged with regrets and loneliness. Colline and Schaunard arrive and the four friends decide to pool their meagre resources and pretend that they have a great banquet. The celebrations descend to a noisy brawl and a mock duel, which is interrupted by the arrival of Musetta, who tells them that she has found Mimi really ill, and too weak to look after herself, so she has brought Mimi with her. The friends try to make Mimi comfortable. Musetta gives Marcello her ear-rings and sends him off to sell them, telling him to come back with some cordial and a doctor. Mimi says that her hands are cold and that she wishes that she had a muff. Rodolfo tries to warm her hands in his and Colline sings a sad farewell to his much-loved overcoat, which he intends to sell to raise some money to help Mimi (the music reflects his mood as he tries to hide his sadness beneath a bold attempt at humour). Alone, Mimi and Rudolfo declare their unchanged love for one another. They reminisce about their first meeting – feeling for the lost key, and the bonnet which Rodolfo bought, and has kept all this time. One by one the others return. Musetta warms the cordial which Marcello has brought and they await the doctor, but Mimi dies unnoticed, in silence. Rodolfo is inconsolable.
There are related OperaStory articles on
- Puccini’s life and his operas
- Henri Murger’s life and his writings
- Luigi Illica’s life and his librettos
- Giacomo Giacosa’s life and his contribution to opera
- Other operas based on the same story, including Ruggero Leoncavallo’s La Bohème, based on the same characters, but using different incidents from Murger’s novel
- The background to the writing of Puccini’s La Bohème
- The characters in Puccini’s La Bohème and their real-life models in Murger’s own life
- The many things to eat which are mentioned in Puccini’s La Bohème
and many other aspects of the opera
© Roger Witts 2006