And that is no wonder when we consider the source, Henri Murger’s oft-mentioned but rarely read—and delightful—Scènes de la vie de bohème. These Scènes are just that, 22 sketches or episodes that appeared in 1848 as a serial in Le Corsaire-Satan, were adapted for the stage in 1849 by Murger and Théodore Barrière, and published as a book in 1851. They describe the life of the bohemian artists and writers of whom Murger, who was born in 1822, was one. Several of the characters occur in more than one chapter, and the opera-lover leafing through the pages of the Scènes will recognize the names of Rodolphe, Marcel, Schaunard, Colline, Mimi, Musette, and even M. Benoît. Murger drew from life, and virtually all the originals of his characters have been identified: Rodolphe is a self-portrait, down to the detail of describing his head as being “as bald as a knee,” but for the rest, he availed himself of an artist’s freedom to alter, mix, and compound.
The Scènes were translated into Italian in 1859, badly cut, and again, this time complete, in 1872. This later translation was reprinted in 1890, and that is the version through which Puccini, whose French was never better than approximate, got to know the book, though probably not until the winter of 1892–93. At the beginning of that winter, he has completed Manon Lescaut, which would bring him his first big success, a success that was the sweeter for his having dared to compete with Jules Massenet’s Manon of 1884, and he was looking for new material. (It has been accurately observed that Puccini spent more time looking for librettos than setting them.) At one point he was working on two operas simultaneously, La Bohème and La Lupa (The She-Wolf), the latter based on a novel by Giovanni Verga, with whose Cavalleria Rusticana, Puccini’s younger rival Pietro Mascagni had scored a stunning success in 1890. And not to forget Buddha, a project that also occupied Puccini briefly but intensely about this time.
The Bohème librettists, enlisted partly by Puccini himself, partly by his publisher, Giulio Ricordi, were Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, both of whom had been part of the Manon Lescaut work force. Illica’s task was to work out the scenario in broad outlines while Giacosa, an older man and a playwright and littérateur of some distinction in his own right, was responsible for the detail work and the versification. The two writers and the composers regularly maddened each other, but they got the job done—superbly—and not least because all three were able to give in at certain crucial moments. Some thanks are also due to Ricordi for his diplomatic skill and a few specific contributions. They worked together again on Tosca (1900) and Madama Butterfly (1904), and had Giacosa not died in 1906, this formidable team would undoubtedly have continued their work together.
To draw a coherent and shapely libretto from the vivid but nonlinear Scènes was hard, but the Murger-Barrière dramatization at least showed it could be done, even though the play itself was never considered as the basis for a text. One reason was financial: Barrière’s heirs were still around, and an adaptation of La Vie de bohème would have entailed hefty fees. Puccini’s central concern was Mimì’s illness and death: like Murger’s Rodolphe, he had a certain faible for the vulnerable femme fragile. And it was in creating the character of Mimì that Illica was at his most boldly interventionist with respect to its literary source. Though she does die at the end, Murger’s Mimi is a pretty tough number and distinctly promiscuous all along; the delicate Mimì who touches our hearts in the opera is based more on a character called Francine, who appears in just one chapter of the Scènes. (Someone had a good ear; Mimì is a better name for singing.)
The outcome was a wonderfully original opera, something the extreme familiarity of La Bohème can keep us from noticing and appreciating. Puccini could have called it a Conversation Piece, the designation Richard Strauss would use for Capriccio nearly half a century later. Its essence is rapid exchanges, even telescoped and superimposed exchanges, occasionally halted in a freeze-frame, and early audiences found the speed of exchange in the scene at the Café Momus bewildering. One doesn’t immediately think of La Bohème as resembling Verdi’s Falstaff, whose premiere took place just eight days after that of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut; nonetheless, Falstaff, about which people complained that it lacked arias, was a model Puccini studied carefully and used to his profit and unobtrusively.
Even the three famous arias—Rodolfo’s and Mimì’s self-portraits in Act One and Mimì’s attempt at a farewell in Act Three, “Donde lieta usci”—are intimate conversation pieces, the latter rising to forte for just two single measures, and all three end softly. Apropos the conversational style in La Bohème, it is interesting to hear how great a role parlando (speaking) plays and for the score-reader to observe how meticulous Puccini’s notation is for the many nuanced degrees between real singing and real speech. (Most of these subtleties are lost in performance.)
Except of course for the Rodolfo-Mimì duets that bring down the curtain at the ends of the first and third acts, the other solos and ensembles don’t have formal closes but are folded into whatever comes next. In some ways, Musetta’s waltz-aria in the Momus scene is in this respect the most interesting of all. Puccini recycled several pre-Bohème musical ideas of his own for this opera, and this aria is one of them. Isolated as a concert piece or on recording, it turns out not to be a terribly interesting piece, but in context—and I mean not only the dramatic but also the aural context—it is wonderful. It is the comments of Alcindoro, Musetta’s embarrassed escort, and of course Marcello, her once and future lover whom she is trying to tease and torment and recapture, that turn her song into a vivid object and into another self-portrait. It is possible to stop for applause after Musetta’s flourish with the high B, but the music really wants to rush right on.
Puccini was especially proud of Act Four. He liked to boast that he had been the first to begin the opening and final acts with the same music, responding to the parallel situations his librettists had presented to him: Rodolfo and Marcello disheartened, about the cold in Act One, about the defection of their girlfriends in Act Four; the arrival of food, a feast in Act One because Schaunard has earned some unexpected francs, a single herring in Act Four; high-jinks, interrupted by Benoit with his demands for the rent in Act One, by the arrival of Musetta and the dying Mimì in Act Four; in both, a tender scene between Rodolfo and Mimì, but with vastly different outcomes. That difference is symbolized by the play of light in the two scenes: in the one, the moonlight that suddenly floods the room and surrounds her face like a nimbus, celebrated in the orchestra by a hushed and shimmering A major chord, set in its most vulnerable distribution, with E in the bass; in the other, the glare of spring sunlight from which Rodolfo has to shield Mimì’s eyes by improvising a curtain. But that “same” opening music is made subtly different by its orchestra coloring, as gray as the Parisian sky at the beginning, feverishly bright when it returns.
And having seen what Richard Wagner had done in Götterdämmerung, Puccini, operating of course on a much less ambitious scale, makes virtually his entire last act a recapitulation of earlier music. As lovers will, Rodolfo and Mimì revisit their first encounter, and Mimì reveals that she knew Rodolfo had pocketed her key. (“I was helping destiny along,” he explains.) The strains of “Che gelida manina” and “Mi chiamano Mimì” are reduced now to the most fragile, translucent, incorporeal of specters. (That is when the last diehards in the audience go to pieces.) And always, as throughout the opera, the story of the contrast of cold and warmth.
The story goes that Puccini wept when he came to compose Mimì’s death. In all that company, she dies alone, the moment itself unnoticed by anyone on stage, remarked only by the orchestra in a B minor chord for a few woodwinds and horns, with a pppp cymbal stroke. Perhaps he did weep, but the sources are not impeccably reliable. But we know for sure that when she dies, he drew a little skull and crossbones on her now empty stave in the score: as well as being an intensely emotional and erotically susceptible man, Puccini was always the superb and knowing craftsman, and as such by necessity a bit distanced. La Bohème, in which Puccini came truly of age as an artist (at 37!), is a masterwork we too easily take for granted, a work in which he created four fascinatingly and sometimes exasperatingly complex characters—the two couples, Rodolfo and Mimì, Marcello and Musetta—and it is a song about the frailty of love and happiness, about the ephemerality of what Jorge Luis Borges called our “wondrous, fragile life.” And for more than a hundred years now, we have brought our love to La Bohème perhaps most of all because it is a deeply truthful work.