La Bohème

La Bohème

La Bohème is the most or at least one of the three most-played operas in the world. It has an incredible impact on anyone watching it and its astonishingly beautiful music has made it a must for every opera house of importance.

It is also a perfect first-time opera. The story is easily understood, and the main subjects are love, sacrifice, and poverty. All issues that a normal, modern individual can relate to. To that, it doesn’t have any particular difficulties in setting it up. The voices are pretty straightforward. All roles can be sung by any reasonably prepared singer, and no voice is outside the normal voice categories.  

La Bohème made Puccini a superstar, and this opera confirmed his place as the nr 1. opera composer of the time. Of the ten most performed operas around the globe today, three are by Puccini. Equaled only by Mozart. 

la bohème by Giacomo Puccini
Giacom Puccini

Composer – Giacomo Puccini

Librettist – Giuseppe Giacosa, Luigi Illica

Running Time – ca. 1 hour and 50 minutes, plus Intervals

Four Acts 

Act 1 – 35 minutes

Act 2 – 20 minutes

Act 3 – 27 minutes

Act 4 – 29 minutes

In Italian

Main characters

  • Mimi – Lyric Soprano. Poor neighbor. Rodolfo’s girlfriend. 
  • Rodolfo – Lyric Tenor. Poor Poet. Mimi’s boyfriend. 
  • Marcello – Lyric Baritone. Poor Painter. Musetta’s boyfriend
  • Musetta – Light/Lyric Soprano. Marcello’s girlfriend. 

Based on the novel Scènes de la vie de Bohème (Scenes of Bohemian life) by Henri Murger

Download this short Pdf-guide. Print it, fold it, and keep it in your pocket as a help when you’re at the Opera. Please keep your phone turned off when inside the theater.

Background – The Opera La Bohème is set in…

Paris. 

The period for La Bohème is the 1830s, and the exact location is Quartier Latin, The Latin quarters. Apart from the third Act that’s set in the outskirts of the city.

The Latin quarters were homes for poor people… Artists, Musicians, and all kinds of Wanna-bes. The inhabitants were also younger than in other parts of Paris, mostly without family. It was a place where you could find cheap accommodation if you didn’t mind sharing it with bugs and having questionable neighbors. It was also a place for entertainment with widespread prostitution. A French Greenwich Village.

The four friends, Rodolfo, Marcello, Colline, and Schaunard go under the name of “The four musketeers”, as they are never far from each other for long.

Would you like to visit Paris?

 

Would you like to see the sites where the Opera takes place? 

 

Plot

There’s no Ouverture. We jump right into the drama…

la bohemeAct 1 – Christmas Eve in Quartier Latin

Rodolfo, Poet, and Marcello, Painter, share the top floor of a tenement house. Marcello is painting and Rodolfo is writing but the cold is unbearable. They don’t even have money to buy wood for the stove, so they decide to burn something else. Marcello proposes his painting, but as the paint would smell, they agree on sacrificing the manuscript for Rodolfo’s new novel.

In comes Colline, Philosopher (Bass). He too complains about the harsh times, as he hasn’t been able to pawn some of his books. The three of them burn Rodolfo’s novel.

Schaunard, Musician (Baritone) enters with wine, food, and wood. He explains the reason for his fortune… An eccentric Englishman (whose accent he imitates in a few phrases) needed a musician and had pointed at a Parrot and told Schaunard to play until it died, obviously trying to trick him. But giving the bird some parsley made it fall off the perch and the money was paid.

When Schaunard understands that the others aren’t listening, as they are only interested in the food and the wine, he sends them all to hell. He then tells them that the viands are for worse times and that they instead are going to spend Christmas Eva at Cafè Momus, a few blocks down the road.

There’s a knock on the door.

The landlord Benoit (Comical role Baritone or Bass), is there to collect the rent. This is a genuinely comical scene where the four friends first compliment Benoit for his ways with women but then accuses him of being immoral and unfaithful to his wife. They tell him that they don’t want to have anything to do with such a scoundrel, and send him away with kind regards to his wife…

As they are leaving the attic to go to Momus, Rodolfo stays behind for a moment, to finish an article for a Newspaper. Alone, he doesn’t really feel inspired. There’s another knock on the door.

Love 

Mimi, the neighbor (She is the Bohemian of the title, La Bohème), asks if he could please light her candle. It’s blown out by the draft in the stairway. Standing in the doorway, she faints, and Rodolfo helps her to a chair and offers her some wine. (Here we already see that she’s ill. An illness that will take her life at the end of Act 4).

When leaving the apartment she can’t find her key, then the candle flickers in the wind and is blown out. Also, Rodolfo deliberately blows out his candle, and they try to find the key on the floor in the dark. Rodolfo finds it but hides it in the pocket. When his hand touches the hand of Mimi she sighs a muffled Ah! (That should be timed with an A-flat chord in the orchestra)

This is one of the most famous moments in the whole Opera literature. Rodolfo sings Che Gelida Manina (What a cold little hand) which is one of the most famous Opera Arias ever. He talks about who he is, what he does, and something about his dreams.

Right after that Mimi sings Mi chiamano Mimi (They call me Mimi… but my true name is Lucia). And this is another of the top Opera Arias of all time. She talks about flowers and prayers like a good girl, but in the Italian text, she’s explicit in that she’s interested and is willing to give herself to him. Puccini weaves the cruel reality of poverty into the fantastic music and the seemingly happy love story.

  –  I live alone, she sings. … Alone…!

They fall in love, and when the three friends call the poet from the street, Mimi agrees to come with him.

Embraced they walk away towards Cafè Momus. The final note should be a C6 for the soprano and an E4 for the tenor. And it should end in a very soft Pianissimo. A good tenor would want to show off and go up on the high C5 together with Mimi, and for that reason, the last phrase is sometimes sung from the side scene in Forte (strong). This is not in the intent of Puccini.

Act 2 – At Cafè Momus.

 A crowded and chaotic environment with a lot of people who run from here to there. The chorus is divided into groups that shout short phrases, more than actually sing. They are salesmen, customers, mothers, fathers, and children. Among them, we see Schaunard, Colline, and Marcello.

cafè momusRodolfo and Mimi navigate through the crowds, laughing and having a good time. The four friends end up at a table in the middle of the Cafè and Mimi is introduced to the others.

Here are two very small parts…. Parpignol, who is the Toys-salesman, and a child who has a solo phrase Vo’ la tromba, il cavallin.

Marcello asks Mimi what gift Rodolfo has given her, and she answers a hat (… that will play a part in both the 3rd and the 4th Act).

Now the fourth main character enters, Musetta. She is more of a glamour girl and more openly prostituted. She’s there with Alcindoro, an old and rich gentleman (Comical role Baritone or Bass, sometimes doubles as Benoit). Immediately it’s clear that Musetta still has feelings for Marcello, her former lover, and that Marcello too is in love. They quarrel openly, and Alcindoro becomes more of a bystander even though he’s the one paying for her. Here comes another highlight, Musetta’s Aria Quando me n’vo… (When I walk down the street alone, people stop and look…). Musetta now attracts the attention of the whole Cafè as she tries to rid herself of Alcindoro. Suddenly she screams out loud. My foot hurts. These shoes are terrible. She then tells her escort to run down to the corner where there’s a shoemaker, to get her another pair of shoes. He protests, but then he takes her shoe under the coat and exits.

Marcello and Musetta can now openly show their affection. Someone in the group asks for the check, which turns out to be much more than what they can afford. Musetta cunningly grabs it and tells the waiter to add it to the check of Alcindoro’s. 

While this happens, a military parade is approaching in the streets. Everybody runs out to see it and in the confusion, our friends disappear into the crowd. The band marches through and everybody sings along. The scene ends with Alcindoro coming back from the shoemaker not finding anybody except for the exaggeratedly expensive bill.

Act 3 – The Barrière d’Enfer (Gate of Hell)

The atmosphere is now darker and the story becomes increasingly tragic.

The limit of 1800-Paris. A toll station with guards and gates that close at night. The atmosphere is drastically different from the happiness of Christmas, love, and friendship in the second Act.

Two months have passed. Marcello is working as a painter at a nearby Tavern, where Musetta sings to amuse the customers. Mimi comes to see Marcello. 

She explains that Rodolfo is changed. He’s always jealous, he shouts at her and says that she should find herself another lover. At night he sits just looking at her as if trying to read her mind.

  –  Last night he said, It’s over, then he ran out!

Marcello explains that Rodolfo had come there in the early morning, very tired, and had just fallen asleep, exhausted. He offers to get him for her but she doesn’t have the courage to meet him.

Rodolfo wakes up and comes out from the Tavern where Marcello is waiting for him. Mimi is hiding behind a corner.

This is one of the best half hours in the musical literature of all time. 

Marcello quarrel with him for his jealousy. But Rodolfo states that Mimi is unfaithful and that she becomes a flattering coquette in presence of other men, especially a particularly indiscreet Viscount.

Marcello gets angry with him and pushes him to make him take reason.

This is the key-point in the Opera. Puccini makes Rodolfo sing two phrases exactly the same apart from one note. The first time he explains about the Viscount, and how coquette Mimi is, flirting with everybody. The second time he reveals his true despair. That one, single note changes the atmosphere in his voice completely.

–  “Mimi è una Civetta e frascheggia con tutti”… (First phrase)

  –  Invan’, invan’ nascondo la mia vera tortura… (Second phrase)

  –  Mimi is sick. And I cannot provide for her, he says. Our little room is cold and the north wind comes rumbling in. I love her more than anything in the world but if she doesn’t get help, she will die. Love isn’t enough to save her.

Mimi who’s standing aside hears him and comes forth. At first, Rodolfo denies what he just said, but soon they both understand the sacrifice they have to do. They have to break up. When winter turns to spring, and nature awakes, their love will have to end.

And here Mimi sings the marvelous aria Donde lieta usci’. Bring a handkerchief.

Then there’s the final quartet in three parts, equally brilliantly composed, where Rodolfo and Mimi declare each other eternal love. But also that they shall await spring before separating.

  –  I wish that winter could last forever, Mimi sings with tears in her eyes.

The second part is when Musetta comes out from the Tavern. Marcello accuses her of being too provocative towards a gentleman and they start another fight with harsh language and offending words.

The third part is the end of the Act. Mimi and Rodolfo walk away together embraced, while Musetta and Marcello break up for the umpteenth time. Their part of the quartet finishes with short phrases and words, the very last outbursts are spoken: Vipera, Rospo, Strega (Snake, Toad, Witch).

Puccini shows off his genius by letting four people sing out two completely different emotions. Rodolfo and Mimi express their everlasting love in beautiful melodies while Musetta and Marcello are quarreling, screaming, and shouting. And still, it’s the same music, the melody is perfectly harmonically consonant and the line is simple as a lullaby.

Rodolfo and Mimi walk off the stage.

la boheme
Courtesy of Gaston de Cardenas.

Act 4 – Back in the Attic of the first Act

More time has passed. Rudolfo and Marcello are again trying to work. This time it’s not the cold that prevents them, but it’s the longing for their loved ones. They sing a famous duett Oh, MImi tu più non torni where they declare their love, each to his woman.

  –  I don’t understand how my brush has his own life. When I should draw the sky, the earth, the spring, and winter. The only thing that comes out is Musetta, her eyes, her lips…

As another rerun from the first Act, Schaunard and Colline enter but not with wine, food, and combustible, but with one small herring… salted. So the four friends start to prepare for dinner. They soon get caught up in a game where each one impersonates a character. Marcello at a certain point  gets to be a woman (singing in falsetto). They run around the flat fighting, and laughing…

Puccini has composed an orchestral scherzo in a high tempo where nobody sings. They just run around chasing each other for 30 seconds. The contrast is like a punch in the gut when the music suddenly stops on an orchestra hit in Bb followed by an E minor.

Musetta rushes in. She had found Mimi on the street. Mimi had left her Viscount and was trying to reach Rodolfo just to die together with him hoping that he had been waiting for her. Now she couldn’t climb the stairs.

They help her in and put her in bed.

The small group of friends gathers around her. Mimi says that her hands are still cold and smiles at Rodolfo. Their apartment is as empty as it can be. They don’t have anything to offer her. Musetta leaves with Marcello to sell her earrings for medicine and to call a doctor.

Then Colline sings an Aria for his coat (Vecchia zimarra). He too is going to sacrifice something for a friend in need. For a man without money, giving away the only thing that could keep him warm, isn’t a small thing…

This is one of the very few Bass-Arias by Puccini. He didn’t particularly like low voices. 

He and Schaunard leave.

Here follows the immensely sad aria by Mimi.

  –  Sono andati? Fingevo di dormire. (Are they gone? I pretended to sleep…)

Then a short duet between Rodolfo and Mimi where fragments from the first act are returning. Rodolfo brings out the hat he bought her at Christmas. He had saved it as a memory. She sings fragments of the melody from Rodolfo’s Aria in the first act, but collapses. Rodolfo cries out and Schaunard rushes in.

But Mimi assures them both that she’s fine.

Now the others return. Musetta gives a Muff to Mimi for her cold hands and prepares the medicine. Marcello says that the doctor will come as soon as possible. Mimi falls asleep declaring eternal love for Rodolfo

The end is also quite extraordinary. 

There is a moment after the second citation of Rodolfo’s aria when the orchestra plays a distinctive B minor. That should be the point when she dies. The death of Mimi is often shown with a sudden change in light or even her hand that falls out from under the blanket. Again Puccini uses all his knowledge about the stage to create extraordinary tension.

Schaunard understands that she’s dead and tells Marcello. Often Musetta too is aware that she’s deceased … The last phrases are not sung but spoken. Colline asks:

  –  How’s she doing?

  –  You see? She’s calm.

Then Rodolfo senses something strange in the atmosphere. They watch him with immense pity. So he cries out.

  –  What is it? All that walking back and forth?… Why are you looking at me like that?

  –  Coraggio (Be strong…), Marcello says, and embraces him.

Rodolfo frees himself and cries out.

  –  Mimi… Mimi! 

Things to look out for

First Act

  • 10 minutes Benoit enters.
  • 20 minutes Che Gelida Manina, Rodolfo’s Aria.
  • 25 minutes Mi Chiamano Mimi…, Mimi’s Aria.

Second Act

  • 5 minutes After some disorder with the children’s choir and the mothers, one single child’s voice is heard “Vo’ la tromba, il cavallin…”.
  • 12 minutes Quando me n’vo, Musetta’s Aria.
  • 16 minutes Right after the Aria Musetta screams and starts yelling about her foot.

Third Act

  • 2 minutes From the side scene Musetta sings together with the chorus.
  • 10 minutes Rodolfo comes out and the key-scene with Marcello starts. After that, there’s the quartet and your attention should be turned up until the end. This is great music and art.
  • 17 minutes Mimi sings the heartbreaking Donde lieta usci’

Fourth Act

  • 1 minute The famous duet with Rodolfo and Marcello: Oh Mimì tu più non torni…
  • 8 minutes When they stop singing and there’s half a minute of high tempo music, be aware. It finishes abruptly with Musetta entering through the door.
  • 15 minutes Colline’s Aria Vecchia Zimarra.
  • 18 minutes Mimi: Sono andati? Fingevo di dormire
  • 25 minutes  About 2 minutes after Musetta and Marcello come back, Mimi dies. She sings ever softer and in the end, there is a short silence before she passes away.
the greatest tenor of all time
Enrico Caruso

About the Opera

Giacomo Puccini had written his first real success, Manon Lescaut three years earlier, but with La Bohème he really nailed the coffin. The public was overwhelmed and although the critics weren’t all that enthusiastic in the beginning, they soon had to change their opinion, as the success continued, and continues even today. La Bohème is Puccini’s most performed opera.

The text writers, Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, who also wrote Puccini’s second and third most successful operas, Tosca and Madame Butterfly, had a difficult time with the text. The novel is more like a collection of short stories with a lot of characters. Mimi’s death is not the main plot.

They had in mind a fifth act, placed between the second and third. That would explain Rodolfo’s comment about a Viscount who’s courting Mimi. 

Puccini didn’t include it.

Fun facts

  • When the greatest tenor of all times, Enrico Caruso, was very young he auditioned for the role of Rodolfo. He was practically unknown and Puccini wanted to be sure that this young boy could actually sing. So, Caruso was asked to come over to his Villa for a private session. Puccini played a few phrases on the piano, and Caruso opened his mouth and started singing. After a short while, Puccini suddenly stopped, looked at the young tenor, and asked:  –  Who sent you here? God?
  • Puccini actually competed with another famous Italian composer Ruggero Leoncavallo, Leoncavallo had claimed huge success with his Opera Pagliacci a few years earlier, and now he wanted to beat Puccini by writing his own La Bohème. He lost though, as Puccini’s version came out in 1896 and Leoncavallo’s La Bohème in 1897. Leoncavallo’s Opera has the tenor as Marcello, while Rodolfo is a Baritone. It is not standard Operatic repertoire today. Furthermore, their previous friendship could never heal again after the competitive behavior from both parties.

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Download this short Pdf-guide. Print it, fold it, and keep it in your pocket as a help when you’re at the Opera. Please keep your phone turned off when inside the theater.