The two Bohèmes. In mid-March 1893 the composer and librettist Ruggero Leoncavallo encountered his fellow composer Giacomo Puccini at a caffè. Both men were coming off recent successes: Leoncavallo's Pagliacci (first performance May 1892) and Puccini's Manon Lescaut (first performance February 1893) had each been received with acclaim. Perhaps inevitably, the talk turned to new projects. Puccini told Leoncavallo that he was working on an opera based on Henri Murger's novel Scènes de la vie de bohème (1851); Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa (who had completed Manon Lescaut) were hard at work on the libretto.
Leoncavallo was incensed. He, too, was working on an opera based on Murger's novel, and had been for months. And according to several sources, Puccini knew it: it's been suggested that Leoncavallo had earlier offered him the Bohème libretto, and Puccini had turned it down. Leoncavallo felt that La bohème was his idea, and Puccini was stealing it. 
After the men separated, Leoncavallo quickly contacted the newspaper Il Secolo, where the following notice appeared in the March 20-21 issue: "Maestro Puccini, to whom Maestro Leoncavallo declared two days ago that he was writing Bohème, confessed that only upon his return from Turin a while back did he think of setting La bohème to music, and that he had spoken of it to Illica and Giacosa who, according to him, have not yet finished the libretto. Maestro Leoncavallo's priority as regards this opera is thus indisputable."
Puccini responded with his own notice in the paper Il Corriere a few days later, claiming his previous ignorance of Leoncavallo's project. He proposed a friendly competition: "Let him compose, and I will compose, and the public will judge for themselves." Puccini's publisher Ricordi, though, telegraphed to Paris to try to secure the rights to Murger's novel to prevent Leoncavallo from working on it, only to discover that it was in the public domain. The slow-motion race to complete La bohème was on. 
Puccini won. His La bohème premiered in February 1896 and was an immediate hit. One hundred and twenty years after its first performance, Puccini's Bohème is his most-produced work and justly remains one of the most popular operas ever written. Leoncavallo's version did not appear until May 1897, and despite some initial success never established itself in the repertory.
Which is a shame, because judging from West Edge Opera's concert version of "The other Bohème" (seen March 22 at Berkeley's Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse), Leoncavallo's version seems quite stageworthy. It has some excellent music, and some powerful scenes (particularly in the last two acts). If opera houses have room for two Manons (Massenet's Manon and Puccini's Manon Lescaut) and four Fausts (Berlioz's La damnation de Faust, Gounod's Faust, Busoni's Doktor Faust, and Boito's Mefistofele), there should certainly be room for both Bohèmes.
Novel into opera. Murger's novel is written as a linked series of stories that portray four friends—the writer Rodolphe (Rodolfo in the operas), the painter Marcel (Marcello), the musician Schaunard, and the philosopher Colline—and their love affairs in the bohemian quarter of Paris in the 1830s. Even though the two Bohèmes are both based on this source material and feature many of the same characters, they are surprisingly different.
The first surprise is that in Leoncavallo's version, it is Marcello and Musetta rather than Rodolfo and Mimì who are the main couple. Because in this era leading men were tenors, that means that the voice types are redistributed: in Leoncavallo, Marcello is a tenor and Rodolfo a baritone, while in Puccini, Rodolfo is a tenor and Marcello a baritone. The second surprise is that two of the acts in Puccini's opera have no parallels in Leoncavallo's opera. Here is a comparison of the structure of the two operas:
Puccini's La bohème Leoncavallo's La bohème Act I: Christmas Eve, at the Bohemians' garret: Rodolfo and Mimi meet Act II: Christmas Eve, on the terrace of the Café Momus: Marcello and Musetta reconcile Act I: Christmas Eve, in a private room inside the Café Momus: Marcello and Musetta meet Act III: Winter, at the Barrière d'Enfer: Rodolfo and Mimi quarrel and reconcile; Marcello and Musetta quarrel and separate "Missing" act: Spring, in the courtyard of Musetta's apartment building: Musetta's eviction party; Musetta breaks with her rich patron and reconciles with Marcello, Mimi leaves with the Viscount and separates from Rodolfo Act II: Spring, in the courtyard of Musetta's apartment building: Musetta's eviction party; Musetta breaks with her rich patron, Mimi leaves with the Viscount and separates from Rodolfo Act III: Autumn, at the Bohemians' garret: Musetta leaves Marcello; Rodolfo rejects Mimi when she tries to return Act IV: Autumn/Winter (Christmas Eve?), at the Bohemians' garret: The death of Mimi Act IV: Christmas Eve, at the Bohemians' garret: The death of Mimi
Even the two acts which seem to tell the same story—the Café Momus scene and the death of Mimì—have substantial differences. In general, Leoncavallo is more faithful to Murger's novel, while Puccini's librettists Illica and Giacosa noticeably depart from the source. However, Puccini's version is far more dramatically compelling. For one thing, Puccini and his librettists realized that Mimi's death would be more moving if she were the focus of our attentions (and emotional investment) from the beginning of the opera; Leoncavallo keeps the focus on Musetta and Marcello until the last act, lessening the emotional force of the final scene. Puccini's music is also more sweeping and melodic. That Puccini's version has become one of the most popular operas ever composed, while Leoncavallo's is rarely performed, is not only a matter of who finished first.
Puccini's missing act. Illica and Giacosa's libretto for Puccini's La bohème originally included another act. As I wrote in Opera Guide 4: La boheme,
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, and arrange the furniture removed from her apartment into a makeshift ballroom in the building's courtyard. Schaunard conducts the [hired] 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.Leoncavallo did include the eviction party scene in his version of the opera. However, after seeing it performed, it's hard not to conclude that Puccini was right to omit it. It's dramatically static: we learn nothing more of consequence about any of the characters, with the single exception of Mimi. But that new knowledge is as unwelcome for us as it is for Rodolfo: when Mimi leaves with the wealthy Viscount, she acts in a mercenary way that renders her far less sympathetic. As usual, Puccini's theatrical instincts were unerring.
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. 
But despite the lack of drama in its first two acts, Leoncavallo's version gathers momentum in its second half, as West Edge Opera's committed cast under the direction of indefatigable music director Jonathan Khuner proved. Powerhouse tenor Alex Boyer as Marcello, Buffy Baggott as Musetta, Carrie Hennessey as Mimi, Anders Froehlich as Rodolfo, and Michael Orlinsky as Schaunard deserve special mention for their excellent performances, but there wasn't a weak link in the cast.
Leoncavallo's La bohème has been recorded several times. In the clip below, Alexandrina Milcheva sings Musetta and Lucia Popp sings Mimi, with Heinz Wallberg conducting the Münchener Rundfunkorchester. The scene is from Act III, when Mimi returns to the Bohemians' garret to try to win back Rodolfo, only to discover that Musetta is on her way out—she's leaving Marcello. Mimi tells Musetta that if Rodolfo will take her back, she will defy poverty and hunger and hardship; Musetta, who has been experiencing poverty and hunger and hardship with Marcello, is fed up and scornful. Musetta is heard first ("Addio, addio...") and Mimi second ("Voglio Rodolfo!"); it's a taste of the dramatic tension that Leoncavallo is capable of summoning:
West Edge Opera's concert performance of Leoncavallo's La bohème concluded their wonderful 2016 "Opera Medium Rare" series; earlier I wrote about their previous production in the series, Paisiello's Barber of Seville. Coming up in July and August is the company's Festival 2016 at Oakland's abandoned 16th Street train station, featuring Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen, Thomas Adés’ Powder Her Face, and Handel’s wickedly cynical Agrippina.
- Leoncavallo's offer of his Bohème libretto to Puccini in early 1893, and Puccini's refusal, are mentioned in Arthur Groos and Roger Parker, Giacomo Puccini: La bohème, Cambridge Opera Handbooks, 1986, p. 31, and "Ruggero Leoncavallo: La bohème," in Amanda Holden, ed., The New Penguin Opera Guide, 2001, p. 490.
- Il Secolo and Il Corriere quotes from Julian Budden, Puccini: His Life and Works, Oxford University Press, 2002, pp. 137-138.
- Illica and Giacosa's libretto for eviction party act is included as an appendix in Groos and Parker's Giacomo Puccini: La bohème, pp. 147-181; "enormous wound" comment, p. 40.