Puccini's La Bohème (literally Bohemia, but usually rendered as The Bohemians, 1896) hardly needs to have more words written about it. It's easily the most popular, most-produced opera in the repertory. Opera connoisseurs often claim that they can resist La Bohème's appeal, and some treat its frequent appearances with open disdain.
But that disdain is misplaced. La Bohème deserves its place as the most popular opera of all time. Its characters are compelling, its music is a soaring and unforgettable expression of passion, and its libretto--adapted by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa from Henri Murger's 1851 novel Scènes de la vie de bohème--is brilliantly witty. (In fact, I think the libretto would have been even better if it were longer: see below.) A good production with capable, committed singers rarely fails to be moving; one of the most effective productions I've seen was put on at a 400-seat theater by the tiny, under-budgeted San Francisco Lyric Opera company.
La Bohème's popularity obscures some things about it that are truly unusual. For one thing, it's about ordinary people living in what was for Puccini's audiences an almost contemporary urban setting. There are no gods, kings, queens, or even aristocrats in evidence (though there is a viscount, who is never seen or heard). For another, Puccini's melodies are virtually continuous--there aren't really separate numbers (although certain moments are often excerpted). In a way, it's a return to a 17th-century, Monteverdian style of composition (a future Opera Guide will cover L'Incoronazione di Poppea). La Bohème also has an odd temporal structure: the first two acts take place over the course of a single evening; the next two span about eight months. The reason for that odd imbalance of elapsed time involves a missing act.
La Bohème opens on Christmas Eve in bohemian Paris. Four friends--Rodolfo the writer, Marcello the painter, Schaunard the musician, and Colline the philosopher--share a cold, underfurnished garret. In Act I, Schaunard returns to the freezing garret with a windfall; the bohemians head out to the Cafe Momus (Momus is the Greek god of satire and mockery, the god of writers) to celebrate. Rodolfo stays behind for a few minutes to finish an article--the hackwork he does to support his true calling, writing plays. He's surprised by Mimì, a seamstress neighbor, whose candle has gone out and who is looking for a light. Rodolfo contrives to extinguish his own candle, and Mimì (deliberately?) drops her key. While searching for the key (which Rodolfo finds and silently pockets), their hands meet in the dark (Rodolfo: "Che gelida manina" (What an icy little hand)). Rodolfo tells her about himself ("Chi son? Sono un poeta" (Who am I? I'm a poet)) and Mimì responds, at first hesitantly, and then with growing warmth ("Mi chiamano Mimì" (They call me Mimì)). Ardently, Rodolfo declares his feelings ("O soave fanciulla" (Oh gentle beauty)), his voice soon joined by Mimì's in a passionate love duet.
(Rodolfo: "Oh, gentle beauty, how sweet your face looks in the moonlight; you are the dream of love that I have always dreamed." Mimi: "His sweet words delight my heart. Love, you alone command us!" This clip is from the 1965 film directed by Franco Zeffirelli and starring Gianni Raimondo as Rodolfo and Mirella Freni as Mimì.) They leave to join the other bohemians at the cafe.
Act II takes place at the Cafe Momus and its surrounding square; we're introduced to Musetta, Marcello's on-again, off-again mistress, a woman who knows her attractiveness to men and exploits them to achieve her own desires ("Quando me n'vo" (When I stroll out alone on the street)). She's arrived at the Cafe Momus with her latest conquest in tow, the rich old man Alcindoro, but leaves with Marcello--sticking Alcindoro with the bill.
Act III occurs a month or two later in a neighborhood on the edge of Paris. Marcello has been hired to paint a mural in a cafe, and Musetta is staying there with him. Rodolfo arrives to tell Marcello that he and Mimì can't stay together. He claims that he's jealous of Mimì's flirtatious nature; Marcello tells him that he should treat love lightly, as he and Musetta do. Rodolfo then confesses (overheard by an eavesdropping Mimì) that he's really concerned about Mimì's health--the cold, drafty garret is making her cough worse. Living with him is killing her; he wants her to find a better situation. Mimì reveals herself to Rodolfo and they reconcile, resolving to put off their breakup until spring. Meanwhile Marcello becomes enraged by Musetta's flirtations with the customers of the cafe--so much for treating love lightly--and after a fierce argument they split up again (not for the last time, we suspect).
The final act is set in the early fall; Rodolfo and Marcello each commiserate with the other about the company in which their former girlfriends have been seen. (James Valenti as Rodolfo and Troy Cook as Marcello conducted by Alberto Veronesi, Florida Grand Opera, 2008.)
Suddenly Musetta returns, with Mimì. Mimì is extremely ill now, and the bohemians rally to try to help her--fearing, though, that it's too late.
So Act I and Act II take place over about four hours on Christmas eve; Act III takes place in winter, and Act IV in late summer/early fall. What's missing, of course, is spring/early summer. And the original libretto included an act that filled in this missing time and revealed how Mimì found another lover.
In the missing act, the four bohemians arrive at Musetta's grand apartment for a party, only to discover that--after being abandoned by her new lover the Councillor--she's being evicted. They determine to have the party anyway, arrange the furniture removed from her apartment into a makeshift ballroom in the building's courtyard. Schaunard conducts the orchestra and, when the building's tenants start to complain, they're all invited to join the party. One of the guests is the Viscount Paolo, who dances and flirts with Mimì as a drunken, jealous Rodolfo looks on. Marcello and Musetta reunite, while Rodolfo bitterly renounces his love for Mimì. As dawn breaks, the guests stagger away as auctioneers arrive and begin selling off the furniture.
Luigi Illica felt that cutting this act inflicted an "enormous wound" on his libretto. Not only is it filled with delightful incidents, it's structurally brilliant. It sets up a reversal of the situations of Rodolfo/Mimì and Marcello/Musetta at the end of Act III, provides another solo opportunity for Musetta as in Act II, and creates an alternation of intimate settings with public festivities from act to act. But Puccini never set it to music, perhaps recognizing that it slowed the opera's dramatic momentum. Given the effectiveness of the final version, it's hard to argue with Puccini's decision.
Many versions of La Bohème have been recorded. On CD, two remain at the top of my list. The first is Sir Thomas Beecham's 1956 recording featuring Jussi Bjorling as Rodolfo and Victoria de los Angeles as a vulnerable, girlish Mimì. In terms of pacing, the conviction of the singers and dramatic effectiveness this version remains unsurpassed. You won't even be aware that it's in mono. But if it's stereo lushness you desire, Herbert von Karajan's 1972 recording with Luciano Pavarotti as Rodolfo and Mirella Freni as Mimì will let you wallow in the sheer beauty of Puccini's music to your heart's content. Like many Karajan recordings, this one favors voluptuous sound over dramatic pace, but when the sound is this lovely it's hard to complain.
On DVD, the Metropolitan Opera production excerpted in the clip above is beautiful to look at (the production is by Franco Zeffirelli) and despite some occasional signs of vocal strain the cast is generally marvelous; Teresa Stratas is an especially affecting Mimì. Renata Scotto's Musetta, though, seems a bit mature for her role, and vocally she's not at her freshest, either. The 1965 Zefirelli film also has a wonderful cast--Freni's Mimì is especially lovely--but as with many opera films of the time it was either lip-synched or post-dubbed, which can be distracting. Baz Luhrmann's Opera Australia production updates the proceedings to the 1950s and offers a youthful and attractive cast in a production that otherwise seems to be reaching half-heartedly for Brechtian alienation effects. David Hobson's lyric tenor is a shade light for Rodolfo, but he throws himself into the role with complete commitment, and Cheryl Barker offers a sympathetic Mimì. But as I mentioned at the start, no matter which version you favor it's hard to go wrong with La Bohème.
The Cambridge Opera Handbook on La Bohème edited by Arthur Groos and Roger Parker (Cambridge University Press, 1986) is a wonderful companion volume to the opera. It discusses the opera's source in Murger's book and play, the origins and development of the opera (including a full libretto of the cut scenes), Puccini's conflicts with fellow composer Leoncavallo (who may have given Puccini the idea for the opera while in the process of writing his own Bohème), its reception and stage history. The Handbook makes hearing or viewing the opera a richer experience; but of course, the dilemmas of Rodolfo and Mimì, Marcello and Musetta require no background or interpretation to be immediate, vivid, and emotionally affecting.