With the premiere of his third opera, decease Manon Lescaut, in February 1893, Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924) finally tasted international success. The Turin audience gave the young composer and cast over 30 curtain calls, and the critics were equally enthusiastic. Born theatrical composer that he was, Puccini had already begun looking around for a subject for a new opera.
He wrote to his brother in South America that he was planning to write an opera based on the life of the Buddha—a subject he seems to have abandoned fairly quickly, probably fortunately since it would be difficult to think of a less congenial subject for Puccini. More than likely he was attracted by its exotic Eastern setting that would go with the current vogue for all things Oriental. (His later operas Madama Butterfly and Turandot combined this Far Eastern setting with plots far more in tune with his sensibilities.)
For a while he was quite serious about adapting the short story La Lupa (The She Wolf) by Giovanni Verga. One of the writer’s short stories had served as the basis for the libretto to Mascagni’s incredibly successful opera Cavalleria Rusticana, and Puccini obviously hoped to repeat that success. He went as far as to visit Verga in Sicily to discuss the project and to soak up the local atmosphere, but it came to nothing.
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No one knows when Puccini first began to seriously consider an opera based on Henry Mürger’s novel Scènes de le vie de bohème. In March, 1893 he was back in Milan after the Manon Lescaut premiere when he ran into his friend Ruggiero Leoncavallo in a café. Leoncavallo’s opera Pagliacci had enjoyed a huge success the previous year, and the two composers talked amiably for a while before Puccini casually mentioned he was working on an opera called La bohème.
Leoncavallo exploded. He had shown Puccini a libretto based on Mürger’s work the previous year, but Puccini had turned it down. Furthermore, Leoncavallo insisted, Puccini knew that Leoncavallo had decided to use the libretto himself since Puccini had shown no interest in it, all of which meant that certainly Leoncavallo had prior rights.
Actually Mürger’s work was in the public domain so there was no question of obtaining the rights to the subject. But the newspapers made the dispute a public controversy and the friendship between the two composers was over. (In fact, Puccini won the bohème race by 15 months. Leoncavallo’s bohème actually was received more enthusiastically at its premiere than Puccini’s had been, and for a while both operas coexisted in the repertoire. But once Puccini’s opera found its public, Leoncavallo’s virtually disappeared.)
Henri Murger was born in 1822. (He later added the “y” to his first name and the umlaut to his second in order to appear more literary.) As a young man he began writing picturesque stories about his life in the Parisian artistic world for the journal “Le Corsaire.” The characters, drawn from people he knew, were often barely disguised, and the honesty with which Mürger wrote of their way of life made the installments of Scènes de la vie de bohème enormously popular. Encouraged by the success of the sketches, Mürger collaborated on a five-act play La vie de bohème that made the 27-year-old author even more famous, and resulted in a book form of the material in 1851. The vivid and colorful novel, Scènes de la bohème, is largely responsible for the way we still view Bohemian, artistic Paris of the nineteenth century. As one critic wrote, “What makes the novel still worth reading is its perfect blend of comedy and tragedy, of humor and pathos.” The fact that Puccini and his librettists captured exactly that magical combination is one reason La bohème is probably the most popular opera ever written.
But turning the episodic material, and the huge cast of characters, into a coherent and concise opera libretto was no easy task. Puccini and his publisher, Giulio Ricordi, turned to two of the (many) people who had worked on the libretto of Manon Lescaut: Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. It was Illica who sketched the scenes and provided the basic text that Giacosa then turned into poetry. Despite some serious quarrels, they were a marvelous team who also wrote the libretti for Puccini’s Tosca and Madama Butterfly, a partnership that only ended with Giacosa’s death.
Illica (1857–1919) churned out over 8o libretti in all, including Giordano’s Andrea Chénier and Catalani’s La Wally. He was prized for his quick work and vivid imagination. Composers were delighted that he understood—and accepted—the fact that his words were only truly valuable for the music they inspired. Illica had a terrible temper, drank heavily, and lost his left ear in a saber duel. Since he often moved to avoid being found by his creditors, he could sometimes be difficult to get in touch with. But he had an almost unerring instinct for dramatic structure that Puccini respected—even while he was arguing bitterly against Illica’s ideas.
Giacosa (1847–1906) was a much more prominent literary figure at the time. His plays attracted actresses like Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse. He was the editor of a major Italian literary journal, and was often frustrated that working on libretti took so much time away from his “real” work. More than once, while working on the libretto to bohème, Giacosa threw up his hands and quit the project, disgusted at having to constantly rewrite, then revise, and finally see his work discarded when Puccini asked for yet another version.
Ricordi, the glue that held the team together, always managed to smooth things over, but it could be a formidable task. Along the way to the bohème we know today, an entire act, set in the courtyard of the house where Musetta lives, was jettisoned. What we now know as Act II, the bustling scene outside Café Momus, gave everyone enormous trouble, whittling it down so the proportions between the crowd scenes and the intimate exchanges between the Bohemians were correct. (In fact, Puccini continued tinkering with Act II even after the first two productions of the opera because it didn’t make the effect with the audience he thought it should.)
One of the biggest arguments involved Act IV. Puccini wanted it to begin with Mimi ill in bed and Rodolfo writing at his desk. Illica insisted the audience had to truly understand that Mimi and Rodolfo had separated, so the act must begin without her. He suggested Rodolfo should be alone, staring out the window at the gusting wind, and he could sing an aria about Mimi. Puccini dug in his heels, but finally gave in, and the final version, with Rodolfo and Marcello complaining—reminiscent of Act I—and Mimi’s later arrival, is exactly right.
It’s the conciseness of the libretto that Edward Berkeley, director of Aspen Opera Theater Center, finds so remarkable: “It gets right to the point. It’s like graceful brushstrokes that tell the story and that are very complete character sketches. In order to explore the character Puccini really just focuses on details that work, and he doesn’t dwell on it. It’s like what makes a great one-act play. Tennessee Williams’s greatest writing is in the one-act plays, where he’s sort of sketching a character. He implies worlds about the character but doesn’t have the time or the form to go too far into it. But he’s created these wonderful worlds in a very elegant brushstroke. We have to fill in the detail. And, of course, Puccini’s musical characterization is extraordinary. He gets right to the point.”
Puccini knew exactly how to convey the drama and the emotions his characters were feeling in such an astonishingly direct way, that even if a listener has no idea what the words say, it is impossible to miss their meaning.
For example, in Act I, as Mimi begins her aria, telling Rodolfo about herself, Puccini emphasizes her timid nature by the simplicity of her music, by having her vocal line doubled by only the first violins, and by only using the violins, violas and cellos in the orchestra. There are frequent rests in her vocal line, reflecting her hesitation to talk about herself. But when she speaks about the arrival of the spring thaw, and seeing the first rays of the sun, Mimi loses her self-consciousness. “With much animation” Puccini writes above her part. The music becomes expansive and though that phrase is marked “pianissimo,” Puccini uses the full orchestra for the first time during her aria. Within four measures the music swells to a fortissimo, and Puccini instructs Mimi to sing “with great expression” her words “the first kiss of April is mine!”—while in the orchestra her music is doubled by the flutes, English horn, clarinets, some of the horns, plus the violins and cellos. It’s a virtual tidal wave of surging emotion that sweeps away the audience, as well as Rodolfo, but it only lasts for eight measures, before Mimi’s basic personality reasserts itself.
Throughout the opera Puccini reuses musical motifs to add color to a scene. For instance, when Musetta makes her last entrance, bringing the muff to the dying Mimi, her entrance is accompanied by two measures of the jaunty tune that had introduced her in Act II. It only lasts a few seconds, but this time the melody is played by the oboe and is made poignant not only by the oboe’s plangent sound, but also by reminding us of the happy times at Café Momus—now gone forever.
There can be no greater example of Puccini’s genius for conciseness than Mimi’s death scene. Unlike most operatic death scenes, Mimi does not get an aria. Instead she and Rodolfo have a brief bit of duet, then she repeats a little of the opening of her aria from their meeting in Act I (reminding us of the couple’s initial happiness). As she grows weaker, the orchestration becomes more delicate. The other Bohemians are busy doing things like warming her medicine, so when she finally slips away, the others don’t even notice at first. It’s a death consistent with her character from the first time we met her, and one that’s devastatingly effective in the theater.
Puccini later told a friend that when he finished Mimi’s death scene, “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.”
It might be fashionable in come circles to bemoan bohème’s popularity and to take pot shots at its unabashed sentiment. But Claude Debussy once remarked to Manuel de Falla: “If one did not keep a grip on oneself one would be swept away by the sheer verve of the music. I know of no one who has described the Paris of that time as well as Puccini in La bohème.” And Debussy should certainly know.
This article originally appeared in the 2009 Aspen Opera Theater program book.