Opera Essentials: La bohème
Love and death in bohemian Paris – a guide to Puccini's poignant opera, as the curtain goes up on John Copley's classic production.
La bohème tells the story of a penniless writer, Rodolfo, who meets a young seamstress, Mimì. They fall in love at first sight, but as Rodolfo realizes that Mimì is gravely ill with consumption, will he stay with her or leave?
Puccini began to plan an opera based on the French writer Henri (known as Henry) Murger’s popular novel Scènes de la vie de bohème in 1893. Unfortunately his friend Ruggero Leoncavallo was contemplating an opera on the same subject, and claimed he’d thought of the idea first. Puccini issued a challenge: the public could decide which opera they preferred. Although Leoncavallo’s La bohème initially had better reviews, the public preferred Puccini’s.
Henry Murger’s Scènes de la vie de bohème is a series of short stories based on the author’s poverty-stricken existence among young Parisian artists. The tone of the stories is generally satirical, only becoming tragic in the final section. Scènes de la vie de bohème was published as a book in 1851. Murger and his friend Théodore Barrière also wrote a successful rather melodramatic play, La Vie de bohème (1849) using some of the same characters. Puccini and his librettists drew on a limited amount of material from both Murger’s stories and play, and made their principal characters more sympathetic than Murger’s.
In designing The Royal Opera’s production of La bohème – first performed in 1974 – Julia Trevelyan Oman meticulously researched Parisian life in the 1830s and 40s, with a focus on Henry Murger’s circle. Highlights of this production include Marcello’s painting in Act I (based in style on a painting by one of Murger’s friends), the careful layout of the bohemians’ attic, complete with four beds, and the brilliantly created Paris street scene in Act II, including a two-level Café Momus with an upstairs billiard room.
La bohème is well known for its glorious arias and duets, above all Mimì and Rodolfo’s arias and duet in Act I. It also contains some wonderful evocations of Parisian life, including the hustle and bustle of Christmas Eve in the street outside the Café Momus and dawn on a winter day on the outskirts of the city.