Beautiful…sad: Puccini’s La bohème

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Loretta: That was so awful.
Ronny: Awful?
Loretta: Beautiful… sad. She died!

  • John Patrick Shanley Moonstruck (dir. Norman Jewison, 1987)

In the 1987 film, Moonstruck, Ronny Cammareri (Nicholas Cage) woos Loretta Castorini (Cher) by taking her to La bohème at ‘the Met’. In the Third Act, as the two principals on stage touch hands through the snowflakes, Ronny reaches over to Loretta, who takes his hand, and a solitary tear trickles down her face. This beautiful scene is a far better assessment of the opera than anything ever attempted by critics.

Puccini’s La bohème will always be loved by audiences wherever opera is performed. It is a staple of every company, the vehicle of great performers (Melba and Caruso were a legendary partnership as Mimì and Rodolfo), and also a great ensemble piece for companies which do not boast stars. But what makes it endure? Gordon Kerry has written about the music[1]. Suffice it for me to say that Puccini wanted it to be constantly melodic (sometimes right down to the bass line) even if the words were merely: “The bill – already?” Fausto Torrefranca, one of the first critics, complained that Rodolfo’s opening phrase, “Nei cieli bigi”, about the chimneys smoking across the rooftops of Paris, could just as easily have been set to the words, “And for this evening, I’d like some macaroni”. But Torrefranca misses the point. Audiences are deeply grateful for Puccini’s unashamed melodiousness.

But there’s another reason why Bohème endures. It is fundamentally touching.

Think of six young people enjoying their youths in the poorer artistic echelons of Paris. Cold and hungry, Rodolfo and Mimì can still find a love that is more serious than the youthful affairs (“loves that last as long as a bedroom candle”) of their peers. But Mimì is sick. Try as Rodolfo and Mimì might to enjoy their love, the shadow of mortal illness hangs over them, and Rodolfo even tries to break off with Mimì rather than face the inevitable heartbreak of her death. Mimì, for her part, steels herself against Rodolfo’s hardness by going off with a viscount who may shower her with better gifts. But then she returns. Too late. Rodolfo’s friends, clearer-sighted than he, realize that she is half an hour from death. She dies while Rodolfo is covering the window to shield her eyes from the spring glare. Even this brief account, without the music, reveals the potential for a memorably sad tale.

And this is where we glean the other great strength of La bohème. The music is genius, but La bohème works also because Puccini and his librettists, Illica and Giacosa, and even his publisher, Ricordi, worked so hard to create dramatic situations that can really wring your heart.

Don’t believe me? There is another Bohème and it is instructive to compare the two.

On 20 March 1893, Ruggero Leoncavallo, famous for Pagliacci, declared in the newspaper, Secolo, that he had been working on an adaptation of Murger’s novel, Scenes from Bohemian Life, since the previous December. He said that he had even offered the part of Schaunard to the singer Maurel at the time of the latter’s arrival in Milan to sing in Verdi’s Falstaff. “Imagine my surprise”, Leoncavallo seemed to be saying, when Puccini informed him that he himself was working on La bohème.

The next day, in the pages of the Corriere della sera Puccini disputed that he had got the idea from Leoncavallo. He claimed to have been working on the idea since the time of the Turin premiere of his previous opera, Manon Lescaut. Leoncavallo shot back: no, Puccini got the idea a few days after returning from Turin. And so the spat went on, until Puccini eventually said, in his final public retort: “Priority in art does not mean that one must interpret the same subject with the same artistic ideas…Let the public decide.” And they have. For Puccini.

Leoncavallo’s La bohème is worth hearing. There are sweeping lyrical highlights. Musetta even has a waltz song. And many of its defenders argue that Leoncavallo’s version remained more faithful to Murger’s original novel. Though histrionic in the fashion of verismo opera, Leoncavallo’s La bohème maintains a measure of detached social criticism.

But in a sense, so what? It is far less moving than Puccini’s opera. Compare the number of performances in the 114 years since both were premiered. Leoncavallo fails to achieve precisely what Giacosa says his co-librettist Illica achieved in his adaptation: extracting a “dramatic action” from an episodic novel which had always seemed to Giacosa “exquisite but little suited to the stage.”’

Henry Murger’s bohemian tales were first written in serial form for editions of Le Corsaire, 1845-48. They were later adapted into a play La Vie de bohème, and premiered at Paris’s Théâtre des Variétés in 1849. This was so successful that Michel Lévy commissioned Murger to turn the work into a novel, Scenes from Bohemian Life which was published in 1851.

Murger’s novel delightfully portrays life among the bohemians of 1830s Paris (rambunctious young people oblivious to poverty, as they energetically seek the higher rewards of art and philosophy). The characters and locations were based on real people and places. Café Momus was at 15 Rue du Prêtres, Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois; Murger himself was the model for Rodolphe. And the novel is really a series of vignettes in no particular chronological order, containing a multitude of characters revolving around the four friends. ‘A Good Angel’ (Chapter 2) is typical. Schaunard (who is also a painter in the novel) persuades a representative of the sugar industry to pose for him without his frock-coat, so that the starving Marcel can wear it to dinner with a deputy of France. The sugar rep shouts Schaunard dinner, so that when Marcel returns Schaunard is sleeping off the feast. Marcel is resentful. He had brought the hungry wretch some dinner – and he takes some peanuts out of his pocket. There it is – neat, charming, rounded-off.

But it is strange to think that the same episodic book would have occurred to two composers, rivals, as suitable for operatic adaptation at the same time. There is nothing intrinsically dramatic in the novel (and both composers avoided the play, partly because the most useful scene – Mimì’s death – was too close to Verdi’s La traviata).

Leoncavallo, his own librettist, is more faithful in keeping certain characters – for example, Viscount Paul for whom Mimì leaves Rodolphe. And he keeps the scene where Musetta goes ahead with her planned soiree though she has been evicted and her furniture taken downstairs into the courtyard.

But by trying to portray faithfully the bohemian high jinks which are such a delightful part of the novel, Leoncavallo submerges a clear throughline, particularly in the long first act. We wait an age for some emotion to be engaged. There is a proposal to go to the Bal Marbille, the wealthy Barbemuche offers to pay the bohemian’s bill, and Schaunard salvages everyone’s honour in a billiards game while Marcello makes a play for Musetta. At the end of Musetta’s soiree Viscount Paul steals Mimì away, but Leoncavallo has concentrated our attention on Marcello and Musetta (the lead tenor and soprano of his version), whose affair can never be as touching as one that ends in death, and by the time Mimì’s death is announced in Leoncavallo’s version, the audience could plausibly ask, “Which one was Mimì?” We have established no particular rapport with her.

How this compares with the La bohème that audiences love; that of Puccini, and Illica, Giacosa, and Ricordi.

Each member brought his own brilliance to the enterprise. It was Giacosa (respected playwright and peer of Boito, Verdi’s last librettist) who had to create wonderful verse from the treatments and dialogue that Illica would send him scene by scene, or from the nonsense verse to which Puccini composed his melodies as he sometimes sped ahead sufficiently inspired by the dramatic situation and sure enough of his dramatic instincts to go on without the exact words in hand. While he was out hunting near his home at Torre del Lago, Puccini came up with some nonsense lyrics to guide Giacosa to the sort of words he wanted for Musetta:  “Coccoricó, coccoricó, bistécca (ie. cock-adoodle-do, cock-adoodle-doo, beefsteak)” to which Giacosa wrote “Quando me’n vo’, quando me’n vo’ soletta” – Musetta’s famous Waltz Song:

When I walk alone in the street

People stop and stare,

And all seek in me my beauty

From head to foot.

Puccini exasperated them all with his capriciousness and indecision. He was always looking for a certain ‘something’. As Illica complained: “I don’t know where to turn to find which ‘something’ is the ‘something’ that Puccini calls ‘something’.” But listening to Puccini’s music, we can be thankful that he clearly found it. Meanwhile, Ricordi kept his eye on all of them, brilliantly brokering their fallings-out and contributing his own occasional prod.

Illica was the swift dramatic thinker whom Puccini biographer Mary Jane Phillips-Matz greatly credits for Boheme’s success. It was Illica who found the touchstone for their story in a chapter in Murger’s novel called ‘Francine’s Muff’, chapter 18 in a 23-chapter novel, which does not concern Mimì or Rodolphe! In this chapter, Rodolphe (Murger’s alter ego) tells the sad story of the love that grew between Francine and an artist-friend of his, Jacques one cold night. Francine’s candle had blown out and she came to Jacques for a light. They fell in love in the moonlight. It was she who hid her key so that Jacques might ask her to stay. And thus it began. The chapter goes on to describe Francine’s tragic death and Jacques’ implacable despair, although the chapter does not end there: it ends with Jacques’ death. But clearly Puccini’s Mimì is also a composite of Francine.

“You have been able to extract from a novel which seems to me exquisite but little suited to the theatre a real dramatic action,” wrote Giacosa to Illica on 22 March 1893. But the scene outline at this stage was as follows:


Act I    i           Garret

  1.               In the Latin Quarter

Act II             The Tollgate

Act III            Musetta’s Courtyard

Act IV            The Death of Mimì

The ‘Latin Quarter’ is the Café Momus scene (today’s Act II) which was at this stage the happy finale to Act I. ‘Musetta’s Courtyard’ (Act III above) lends credence to the theory that Puccini poached his Bohème idea off Leoncavallo, who also retained this episode.

But how much ground had to be travelled before the team achieved the work that so effectively entices audiences today. Ah, recalled Illica nostalgically in 1906:

Those sessions of ours [in Ricordi’s office]…Real battles in which there and then entire acts were torn to pieces, scene after scene sacrificed, ideas abjured which only a moment ago had seemed bright and beautiful; thus was destroyed in a minute the work of long and painful months. Giacosa, Puccini, Giulio Ricordi and I – we were a quartet because Giulio Ricordi…would always leave his presidential chair and descend into our semicircle…to become one of the most obstinate and most vigorous belligerents…Giacosa was for us the equilibrium,… [his] voice…the delightful, persuasive song of the nightingale…And Puccini? After each session he had to run to the manicurist to have his finger-nails attended to: he had bitten them off, down to the bone![2]

It’s hard to imagine Puccini being quite so terrified since, as composer, he was the ultimate arbiter, but yes, there were fights and ultimatums. First one would threaten to leave, then the other, then Puccini might desultorily wonder if it was worth going on…But those fights saw changes that we wouldn’t want to live without, opportunities for Puccini’s greatest music.

The biggest showdown was a meeting in February 1894 to decide what to do with ‘Musetta’s Courtyard’. Illica and Giacosa were reluctant to cut it. It would lessen the significance of Mimì’s return to Rodolfo if they couldn’t show her going off with Viscount Paul. But Puccini didn’t think this was important. He was most interested in Mimì’s death and wanted to cut straight to it from the tollgate. Finally, the team came up with a new beginning to Act IV, the return of the bohemians where Marcello and Rodolfo could briefly allude to Mimì’s whereabouts, but more importantly create a boisterous ‘set-up’ for the ironic switch to tragedy with Mimì’s final entrance. Puccini was happy of course. It also afforded him an opportunity for a kind of musical recapitulation of Act I.

But Illica was worried about the cut: we still don’t have anywhere for a big tenor aria he reminded Puccini. Then he had another brainwave, what Giacosa called the “self-introductions”. Thus was created the space in Act I for the very arias and duet (Rodolfo’s ‘Che gelida manina, Mimì’s ‘Mi chiamano Mimì’ and their duet: ‘O soave fanciùlla’) by which a modern audience gets to care about Mimì and Rodolfo and therefore the course of their affair.

Thus after a year and a half did work on the libretto create the tragic situations which make us extra-receptive to the emotionality of Puccini’s music. Once the plot had settled into the form by which we know it today, musical composition could proceed relatively smoothly though, as Ricordi wisely conceded, the libretto might still need shortening according to the “dictates of musical necessity, as they will appear in the course of composition”.

Everything the four did creates a story that gradually engages us, enlarges our sympathy and wrings our hearts. It is not in Murger (nor Leoncavallo) this lamentable decline of Mimì, her stifled cough in Act I, which becomes more pronounced in Act III, leading to her breathlessness and inability to climb the stairs in Act IV. Nor the obvious arrival of spring, to mock the death of one who had sung longingly of it in the First Act. This was all mapped.

Considering all this it’s easy to see why the opera took three years to reach the stage, from the controversy with Leoncavallo in March 1893 to the first performance in Turin in February 1896. Some accounts blame Puccini’s need to personally attend the premieres around Europe of his previous hit, Manon Lescaut. Others recount that he’d been distracted by toying with an opera on La lupa by Giovanni Verga, the novelist on whose Cavalleria rusticana Mascagni’s opera is based. And another reason may be the time he took out for hunting trips. But a considerable part of the reason for the long gestation of the opera is that it took all this time to get the story just right.

One can only imagine how the librettists and publisher felt when they finally heard what Puccini, the musical dramatist, had added – the intimation of magic in a change of key, for example, as Rodolfo catches a glimpse of Mimì silvered in the moonlight. One night in 1895 Puccini played Giacosa some of his ‘work-in-progress’. Giacosa who was so frustrated by the experience of collaborating on Bohème, that he had several times threatened to quit and “never write an opera libretto again”, was reconciled to the work. “Puccini has surpassed all my expectation, and I now understand the reason for his tyranny over verses and accents,” he wrote. (And of course Giacosa went on write Tosca and Madam Butterfly with all of them again.)

Puccini’s opera is perfect in all its elements. It is not because it was newer or more up-to-date (or first) that it triumphed over Leoncavallo’s work. It is because it is a work that touches audience’s hearts. Early audiences may have been a little slow to warm to it. And many critics certainly didn’t know what to make of it, but by the time the work had appeared at Palermo under Mugnone (its fourth production in two and a half months in 1896), the reception was so rapturous that Mugnone had to repeat the entire last act. The cast had already de-wigged and dressed to go home! Never mind, the love affair went on. The acclaim for Bohème has not waned since. Audiences love this sad beauty.

Gordon Kalton Williams ©2011

This article first appeared in program booklets for Opera Australia’s 2011 production of La bohème, directed by Gale Edwards.

Principal references:

Carner, Mosco, Puccini: Critical Biography, Knopf, New York, 1958

Arthur Groos and Roger Parker, Giacomo Puccini La Bohème (Cambridge Opera Handbook), Cambridge University Press, 1986

Phillips-Matz, Mary Jane, Puccini: A Biography, Northeastern University Press, Boston, 2002

[1] Opera Australia program booklet, 2011 season

[2] quoted p.78 in Puccini: A Critical Biography (Mosco Carner), Knopf, New York, 1958

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