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Puccini: La Bohème
02 Nov 2008

PUCCINI: La Bohème — Vienna 1988

La Bohème, opera in four acts. Music composed by Giacomo Puccini. Libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi lllica, based on episodes from Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de Bohème.

Giacomo Puccini: La Bohème

Mimi (Mirella Freni), Musetta (Patricia Wise), Rodolfo (Placido Domingo), Marcello (Alberto Rinaldi), Colline (Ferruccio Furlanetto), Schaunard (Gottfried Hornik). Wiener Staatsoper. Garcia Navarro (cond.)

Live performance, 8 January 1988, Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna.

 

First Performance: 1 February 1896. Teatro Regio, Turin

Principal Characters:
Rodolfo, a poet Tenor
Schaunard, a musician Baritone
Benoit, a landlord Bass
Mimi, a maker of artificial flowers Soprano
Marcello, a painter Baritone
Colline, a philosopher Bass
Alcindoro, a state councilor Bass
Musetta Soprano
A Custom-House Sergeant Bass
Parpignol, a toy vendor Tenor

Setting: Paris, mid-19th Century

Background:

La Bohème aroused quick public response, thanks to its heart-warming melodies and absorbing drama. Many early critics, however, objected strongly to its story, its music, even its romantic freedom. Turinese writers bemoaned what they called a decline in Puccini’s powers; some dubbed the new work a mere potboiler, others dismissed it as an operina or operetta, and here in New York the Tribune critic flailed the new work as “foul in subject and fulminant and futile in its music.” In due course, however, even the critics were won over by the bubbling verve and intense fervor of the music. Today most opera-goers would rank La Bohème among their favorite operas.

Synopsis:

Act I

Scene: In the Attic.

The cold, bleak garret dwelling of the inseparable quartet, Rodolfo, poet; Marcello, painter; Colline, philosopher; Schaunard, musician, is certainly large enough to accommodate such a family. The sparse furniture makes it seem doubly spacious. For the fireplace — devoid of fire — the few chairs, the table, the small cupboard, the few books, the artist’s easel, appear like miniatures in this immense attic. Marcello, busily painting at his never-finished canvas — The Passage of the Red Sea — stops to blow on his hands to keep them from freezing. Rodolfo, the poet, gazes through the window over the snow-capped roofs of Paris. Marcello breaks the silence by remarking that he feels as though the Red Sea were flowing down his back, and Rodolfo answers the jest with another. When Marcello seizes a chair to break it up for firewood, Rodolfo halts him, offering to sacrifice the manuscript of one of his plays instead. The doomed play now goes into the flames, act by act, and as it burns, the friends feast their eyes on the blaze, but gain scant warmth from it. The acts burn quickly, and Colline, who now enters stamping with cold, declares that since brevity is the soul of wit, this drama was truly sparkling.

Accompanied by errand boys, the musician Schaunard bursts in cheerfully, bringing wood for the fire, food and wine for the table, and money — plenty of it, from the way he flashes it. To his enraptured companions he relates how a rich English amateur has been paying him liberally for music lessons. The festivities are cut short by the arrival of the landlord Benoit, who begins to demand his long overdue rent, when he is mollified by the sight of money on the table. As he joins the comrades in several rounds of drinks, he grows jovial and talkative. The young men feign shock when the tipsy landlord begins to boast of his affairs with women in disreputable resorts, protesting that they cannot tolerate such talk in their home; and he a married man, too! The gay quartet seize the landlord and push him out of the room.

Rodolfo remains behind to work as his companions go off to the Café Momus to celebrate. He promises to join them in five minutes. He now makes several fruitless attempts to continue an article, and a timid knock at the door finally interrupts his efforts. Rodolfo opens, and a young girl enters shyly. While explaining that she is a neighbor seeking a light for her candle, she is suddenly overcome by a fit of coughing. Rodolfo rushes to her side to support her as she begins to faint and drops her candle and key. He gives her some water and a sip of wine. Rodolfo recovers the candle, lights it, and, after accompanying her to the door, returns to his work. A moment later Mimi re-enters. She has suddenly remembered the key and pauses at the threshold to remind Rodolfo of its loss. Her candle blows out, and Rodolfo offers his, but that, too, soon goes out in the draft. Left in the dark, they grope together along the floor for the lost key. Rodolfo finds it and quietly pockets it. Slowly he makes his way toward his visitor, as if still searching for the key, and sees to it that their hands meet in the dark. Taken unawares, the girl gives a little outcry and rises to her feet. “Thy tiny hand is frozen” (“Che gelida manina”), says Rodolfo tenderly; “let me warm it for you.”

Rodolfo assists the girl to a chair, and as he assures her it is useless to hunt for the key in the dark, he begins to tell her about himself. “What am I?” he chants; “I am a poet!” Not exactly a man of wealth, he continues, but one rich in dreams and visions. In a wondrous sweep of romantic melody he declares she has come to replace these vanished dreams of his, and now he dwells passionately on her eyes, eyes that have robbed him of his choicest jewels. As the aria ends, Rodolfo asks his visitor to tell him about herself. “Who are you?” he asks.

Simply, modestly, the girl replies: “My name is Mimi,” and in an aria of touching romantic sentiment, she confides that she makes artificial flowers for a living. Meanwhile she yearns for the real blossoms of spring, the meadows, the sweet flowers that speak of love.

Rodolfo is entranced by the simple charm and frail beauty of his visitor and sympathizes with her longing for a richer life. The enchanted mood is broken by the voices of Marcello. Colline, and Schaunard. calling Rodolfo from the street below. As Rodolfo opens the window to answer, the moonlight pours into the room and falls on Mimi. Rodolfo, beside himself with rapture, bursts out with a warm tribute to her beauty, and soon the two of them unite their voices in impassioned song. “O soave fanciulla” (“O lovely maiden”). Mimi coquettishly asks Rodolfo to take her with him to the Café Momus, where he is to rejoin his friends. They link arms and go out and as they go down the stairs their voices are heard blending in the last fading strains of their ecstatic duet.

Act II

Scene: A Students’ Café in the Latin Quarter.

It is Christmas Eve. A busy crowd is swarming over the public square on which the Café Momus stands. Street vendors are crying their wares, and students and working girls cross the scene, calling to one another. Patrons of the café are shouting their orders to waiters, who bustle about frantically. The scene unfolds in a joyful surge of music, blending bits of choral singing, snatches of recitative. and a lively orchestral accompaniment. Rodolfo and Mimi. walking among the crowd arm in arm, stop at a milliner’s, where the poet buys her a new hat. Then the lovers go to the sidewalk table already occupied by Colline. Marcello, and Schaunard.

Parpignol, a toy vendor, bustles through the crowd with his lantern-covered pushcart, trailing a band of squealing and squabbling children, who pester their mothers for money to buy toys. As the children riot around him, Parpignol flings his arms about in despair and withdraws with his cart. Meanwhile the Bohemians have been ordering lavishly, when suddenly there is a cry from the women in the crowd: “Look, look, it’s Musetta with some stammering old dotard!” Musetta, pretty and coquettish, appears with the wealthy Alcindoro, who follows her slavishly about. Musetta and Marcello had been lovers, had quarreled and parted. Noticing Marcello with his friends, the girl occupies a near-by table and tries to draw his attention. Marcello at first feigns indifference, and when Mimi inquires about the attractive newcomer, Marcello replies bitterly: “Her first name is Musetta, her second name is Temptation!” In an access of gay daring, Musetta now sings her famous waltz, “Quando me’n vo soletta per la via” in which she tells how people eye her appreciatively as she passes along the street.

The melody floats lightly and airily along, a perfect expression of Musetta’s lighthearted nature. Presently the voices of the other characters join in — Alcindoro trying to stop her; Mimi and Rodolfo blithely exchanging avowals of love; Marcello beginning to feel a revived interest in Musetta; Colline and Schaunard commenting cynically on the girl’s behavior. Their varied feelings combine with Musetta’s lilting gaiety in an enchanting fusion of voices. Musetta now pretends her shoe hurts, that she can no longer stand, and Alcindoro hurries off to the nearest shoemaker. The moment he disappears from sight, she rushes to Marcello. The reunited lovers kiss, and Musetta takes a chair at Marcello’s table. The elaborate supper ordered by Alcindoro is served to the Bohemians along with their own. As distant sounds of music are heard, the crowd runs excitedly across the square to meet the approaching band. Amid the confusion the waiter brings in the bill, the amount of which staggers the Bohemians. Schaunard elaborately searches for his purse. Meanwhile as the band comes nearer and nearer, the people along the street grow more and more excited. Musetta rescues her friends from their plight by instructing the waiter to add the two bills together and present them to Alcindoro when he returns. A huge crowd now rushes in to watch as the patrol, headed by a drum major, marches into view. Musetta, lacking a shoe, hobbles about, till Marcello and Colline lift her to their shoulders and carry her off triumphantly to the rousing cheers of the crowd. Panting heavily, Alcindoro runs in with a new pair of shoes for Musetta, and as he slumps dejectedly into a chair he receives the collective bill.

Act III

Scene: A Gate to the City of Paris (the Barrière d’Enjer).

A bleak, wintry dawn at one of the toll gates to the city. At one side of the snow-blanketed square stands a tavern, over the entrance of which, as a signboard, hangs Marcello’s picture of the Red Sea. From within the tavern come sounds of revelry. Outside the gate a motley crowd of scavengers, dairy women, truckmen, and farmers have gathered, demanding to be let through. One of the customs officers warming themselves at a brazier saunters over to the gate and admits the crowd. From the tavern comes the sound of Musetta’s voice. Peasant women pass through the gate, declaring their dairy products to the officials. From a side street leading out of the Latin Quarter comes Mimi, shivering with cold. A violent fit of coughing seizes her as she asks one of the officers where she can find Marcello. The officer points to the tavern, and Mimi sends a woman in to call him. Marcello, rushing to her side, greets her warmly with a cry of “Mimi!” “Yes, it is I; I was hoping to find you here,” she replies weakly. Marcello tells her that he and Musetta now live at the tavern: he has found sign-painting more profitable than art, and Musetta gives music lessons. Mimi tells Marcello she needs his help desperately, for Rodolfo has grown insanely jealous and the constant bickering has made life unbearable. In a tender duet with Mimi, Marcello expresses his sympathy, and her frequent coughing only deepens his concern.

When Rodolfo comes from the tavern to call Marcello, Mimi slips behind some trees to avoid being seen. Now Mimi overhears Rodolfo complaining to Marcello about their quarreling. Just as he announces his decision to give her up, Mimi reveals her presence by another coughing fit, and Rodolfo rushes to embrace her, his love returning at the sight of her pale, fragile beauty. But she breaks away, and sings a touching little farewell song, in which she says she bears him no ill will, that she will now return to her little dwelling, that she will be grateful if he will wrap up her few things and send them to her.

Meanwhile Marcello has re-entered the tavern and caught Musetta in the act of flirting. This brings on a quarrel, which the couple continue in the street. As Mimi and Rodolfo bid each other good-by — “Addio, dolce svegliare alia matina” (“Farewell, a sweet awakening in the morning”) — their friends almost reach the point of blows in their quarrel. The music vividly mirrors the difference in temperament of the two women — Mimi, sad, gentle, ailing; Musetta, bold and belligerent — as well as the different response of the two men. “Viper!” “Toad!” Marcello and Musetta shout to each other as they part. “Ah, that our winter night might last forever,” laments Mimi. Their resolve to part weakens in the new mood of tenderness, and as they leave the scene Rodolfo sings, “Ci lascieremo alla stagion fiorita” — “We’ll say good-by when the flowers are in bloom.”

Act IV

Scene: In the Attic (as in Act I).

Rodolfo and Marcello, having again broken off with their mistresses, are back in their garret, living lonely, melancholy lives. Rodolfo is at his table, pretending to write, while Marcello is at his easel, also pretending. They are obviously thinking of something else — of their happy times with Mimi and Musetta. When Rodolfo tells Marcello that he passed Musetta on the street looking happy and prosperous, the painter feigns lack of interest. In friendly revenge, he tells Rodolfo he has seen Mimi riding in a sumptuous carriage, looking like a duchess. Rodolfo tries, unsuccessfully, to conceal his emotions, but a renewed attempt to work proves futile. While Rodolfo’s back is turned, Marcello takes a bunch of ribbons from his pocket and kisses them. There is no doubt whose ribbons they are. Rodolfo, throwing down his pen, muses on his past happiness. “Oh, Mimi, you left and never returned” (“Ah, Mimi, tu piu”), he sings; “O beautiful bygone days; O vanished youth.” Marcello joins in reminiscently, wondering why his brush, instead of obeying his will, paints the dark eyes and red lips of Musetta.

Their mood brightens momentarily as Colline and Schaunard enter with a scant supply of food. With mock solemnity the friends apply themselves to the meager repast as if it were a great feast. When a dance is proposed, Rodolfo and Marcello begin a quadrille, which is quickly cut short by Colline and Schaunard, who engage in a fierce mock duel with fire tongs and poker. The dancers encircle the, duelists, and just as the festive mood reaches its height, Musetta bursts in. She brings sad news: Mimi, who is with her, is desperately ill. The friends help Mimi into the room and place her tenderly on Rodolfo’s bed. Again Rodolfo and Mimi are in each other’s arms as past quarrels are forgotten. When Musetta asks the men to give Mimi some food, they confess gloomily there is none in the house, not even coffee. Mimi asks for a muff and Rodolfo begins rubbing her hands, which are stiff with cold. Musetta gives her earrings to Marcello, telling him to sell them to buy medicine and summon a doctor. Then, remembering Mimi’s request, she goes to get her own muff. Spurred by Musetta’s example, Colline resolves to sell his beloved overcoat to make some purchases for Mimi. In a pathetic song he bids farewell to the coat, and departs with Schaunard to find a buyer. Rodolfo and Mimi are now alone. Faintly her voice is heard: “Have they gone? I pretended to be sleeping so that I could be with you. There is so much to say.” The lovers unite their voices in a duet of poignant beauty as they recall the days spent together, of the first time they met, of how she told him her name was Mimi. Reminiscent strains of melody are spun by the orchestra as the couple dwell on their attic romance. Mimi wants to know if Rodolfo still thinks her beautiful. “Like dawn itself!” he exclaims ardently. Suddenly Mimi, coughing and choking, sinks back in a faint. Rodolfo cries out in alarm, as Schaunard enters and asks excitedly what has happened. Mimi, reviving, smiles wanly and assures them everything is all right. Musetta and Marcello enter quietly, bringing a muff and some medicine. Mimi eagerly seizes the muff, which Musetta insists Rodolfo has purchased for her. Growing weaker and weaker, Mimi at last falls asleep — or, so it seems. Marcello heats the medicine; the other men whisper together, and Musetta begins to pray. Rodolfo has fresh hope, now that Mimi is sleeping so peacefully. Schaunard tiptoes over to the bed. Mimi is not asleep — she is dead! Shaken, he whispers the news to Marcello. Rodolfo, having covered the window to keep out the light of dawn, notes the sudden change in his friends at the other end of the room. As he realizes the truth, the orchestra pounds out fortissimo chords full of tragic impact. Musetta kneels at the foot of the bed, Schaunard sinks into a chair, Colline stands rooted to one spot, dazed, while Marcello turns away to hide his grief. Rodolfo rushes across the room, flings himself on Mimi’s bed, lifts her up, and sobs brokenly, “Mimi! . . , Mimi! … Mimi!”

[Adapted from The Victor Book of the Opera, 1929]

Click here for the complete libretto.

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