9 July 2014 at 10.34am | Comment on this article
As Puccini completed the final scene of La bohème, he was so moved that, as he later wrote, ‘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.’ Many opera lovers consider the death of Mimì to be one of the most poignant scenes in opera. What makes it so moving?
One factor is Puccini’s realistic depiction of death by consumption. Mimì’s joy at being reunited with Rodolfo and her brief sense of recovery (spes phthisica, a well documented experience of dying consumptives) contrast poignantly with her failing strength. Her death is both understated (her final words are marked pppp) and quietly impressive; the simplicity of her end is more effective than a big farewell aria.
Puccini was also a master of timing. The scene's moments of lyricism are all the more moving for being so brief, as Mimì struggles to express her love for Rodolfo in the short time she has left. The bohemians' rapid parlando (speech-like) passages highlight the urgency of the situation; but there are also moments of tenderness – listen to the slowing pace and warm string accompaniment as Musetta gives Mimì the muff she has longed for. And the low-key nature of Mimì’s death makes Rodolfo’s ensuing anguish all the more heartrending.
Perhaps most effective of all is Puccini's use of ‘reminiscence motifs’, recalling earlier music (mostly from the lovers’ first meeting in Act I) and combining it with new material. As the other bohemians leave Rodolfo and Mimì alone together at the start of the finale, we hear in the orchestra a delicate version of their Act I duet 'O soave fanciulla' (Oh sweet girl). This becomes significant in Mimì's following ‘mini-aria’ ‘Sono andati?’ (Have they gone?): the ecstatic Act I music contrasts poignantly with the solemnity of Mimì’s final avowal of her love. ‘Sono andati?’ begins in a minor key, with falling phrases in the voice, but grows increasingly intense and shifts to warmer major harmonies as Mimì declares in a soaring phrase ‘You are my love and my whole life!’. Puccini conveys her frailty, dignity and passion in less than three minutes of music.
A montage of motifs from Act I follows as the lovers seek comfort in their memories. Tiny fragments from Mimì’s Act I aria 'Mi chiamano Mimì' (I'm called Mimì) resolve into music associated with the search for Mimì’s lost key in their first meeting. As Mimì recalls Rodolfo taking her hand, she sings a simple, lyrical recollection of the first phrase of his aria ‘Che gelida manina’ (This cold little hand), to an accompaniment of clarinets and shimmering strings. But the past cannot provide a lasting refuge, and we are forced brutally back into the present by an outburst from the orchestra as Mimì collapses.
Mimì’s love for Rodolfo and memories of their first meeting sustain her up to her death. When Musetta hands Mimì her muff we hear fragments of ‘Che gelida manina’ reiterated quietly in the orchestra as, in broken phrases, Mimì thanks Rodolfo (believing the muff is from him) and reassures him again of her love. ‘Che gelida manina’ continues to accompany her weakening voice as she drifts into unconsciousness. The motif evaporates with her death, marked by an icy horn chord – but the bohemians, unaware of what has happened, continue to confer agitatedly.
Schaunard and Marcello realize that Mimì is dead. Rodolfo suspects from his friends’ behaviour that something is wrong, and, moving from song to stark, unaccompanied speech, demands, ‘Why are you looking at me like that?’ As he realizes the truth, the orchestra bursts in fortissimo with the melody of ‘Sono andati’ – Puccini shows us Rodolfo remembering Mimì’s love as, overcome with grief, he is only able to cry out her name. The funereal cadence of Colline’s aria ‘Vecchia zimarra’, his shy tribute to the old coat he pawned in one of the bohemians' futile attempts to help Mimì, closes one of the most tender and dramatically effective of operatic death scenes.
La bohème runs 9–19 July 2014. Tickets are still available.
The performance on 15 July 2014 will be streamed live to free, outdoor venues around the UK as part of BP Big Screens. Find a screening near you.
The production is given with generous philanthropic support from The Royal Opera House Endowment Fund. Original Production (1974) supported by The Linbury Trust.