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Quick Start Guide: La bohème

As seen in Opera Cues, Fall 2018

STORY IN A NUTSHELL

It is Christmas Eve, and four poverty-stricken young bohemians—Rodolfo, Marcello, Colline, and Schaunard—decide to head to Café Momus for their holiday meal. Rodolfo remains behind to finish some work, and Mimì, a young neighbor who is obviously ill, knocks at the door to get a light for her candle. The two fall instantly in love, but eventually separate because of his jealousy and his guilt over their living conditions, which have worsened her illness. One day, Marcello’s lover Musetta finds Mimì lying near death in the street and brings her to Rodolfo. Mimì and Rodolfo reminisce about their love for a brief moment before her illness takes her from him for the last time.

A full synopsis appears here.


LA BOHÈME IN CONTEXT

La bohème premiered February 1, 1896, at Teatro Regio in Turin, Italy, conducted by Arturo Toscanini. It was the fourth opera of Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924), following Manon Lescaut, his first success and the one that caused many people to think of Puccini as the “heir” to Verdi. At its premiere, La bohème in general was adored by audiences, but some critics thought it too simplistic.


WHAT TO LISTEN FOR

The rapturous duet “O soave fanciulla” (Rodolfo and Mimì, at the end of Act I) is one of the most famous pieces of music in all of opera. The quartet that ends Act III—in which Mimì and Rodolfo decide to remain together until spring and Musetta and Marcello quarrel furiously—is a great example of how several characters in opera can express their feelings simultaneously. This is possible in no other art form.


ARE WE MISSING SOMETHING HERE?

La bohème premiered February 1, 1896, at Teatro Regio in Turin, Italy, conducted by Arturo Toscanini. It was the fourth opera of Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924), following Manon Lescaut, his first success and the one that caused many people to think of Puccini as the “heir” to Verdi. At its premiere, La bohème in general was adored by audiences, but some critics thought it too simplistic. 

Does it seem odd that at the end of Act II, Rodolfo and Mimì are blissfully in love, yet when Act III begins, they are on the verge of splitting up? What in the world happened? When Rodolfo tries to explain it to Marcello, he first blames it on Mimì’s flirtatiousness and mentions how she dallied with a “foppish viscount.” But this seems totally out of character for the Mimì we’ve seen so far! 

It seems like we might be missing something, because we actually are. The librettists, Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, originally wrote an act that was intended to occur—you guessed it— between Acts II and III. Puccini rejected it and never composed music for it. 

The rejected act describes a party in the courtyard of Musetta’s dwelling: Musetta is being evicted because her “protector,” suspicious about her relationship with Marcello, refuses to keep paying her rent. The bohemians think this is a great occasion for an impromptu party. Musetta lends Mimì a beautiful gown to wear and introduces her to a viscount. The two dance together in the courtyard, and Rodolfo is consumed with jealousy. This explains his description of Mimì as flirtatious and his reference to a “moscardino di viscontino” (young fop of a viscount).


FUN FACTS

  • Jonathan Larson’s musical Rent is based on the storyline of La bohème, which is also the opera Nicolas Cage brought Cher to in the film Moonstruck.
  • Puccini wept when he finished composing the music for Mimì’s death scene. He told a friend: “I had to get up and, standing in the middle of the study, alone in the silence of the night, I began to weep like a child. It was as though I had seen my own child die.”