La bohème is an opera by Giacomo Puccini. The title, which is French, is pronounced “La bo-EM”. The title refers to Mimi, the main female character in the story. She is a bohemian, which means: someone who was poor and goes to Paris to try to earn a living (it has nothing to do with Bohemia, part of the present-day Czech Republic).
Although the title is French, the opera is sung in Italian. The words (libretto) were written by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, who based it on a story called Scènes de la vie de Bohème (Scenes of bohemian life) by Henri Murger.
La bohème was first performed in Turin on February 1, 1896 at the Teatro Regio (Turin). The conductor was Arturo Toscanini, a young man at that time. Fifty years later, in 1946, Toscanini conducted a performance of it on U.S. radio, and this performance was put on to records and later on to compact disc. It is the only recording of a Puccini opera by its original conductor.
The composer Ruggero Leoncavallo also composed an opera called La bohème. Although it is based on the same story the libretto is different. It is hardly ever performed, but Puccini’s opera is one of the most famous of all operas.
[change] The story of the opera
- Place: Paris
- Time: around 1830
[change] Act 1
In the four bohemians' attic room
Act 1 takes place in Paris around 1830. A group of bohemians live in a room in an attic. Marcello is painting while Rodolfo gazes out of the window. They are so poor and so cold that they burn a drama that Rodolfo has written. Colline, the philosopher, comes in shivering and cross because he had not been able to pawn some books. Schaunard, the musician of the group, arrives with food, firewood, wine, cigars, and money. He tells his friends that he has got these things because he has a job with an English gentleman. The others hardly listen as they are so hungry that they try quickly to eat the food. Schaunard interrupts them, taking the meal away, and saying that they will all celebrate his luck by having dinner at Cafe Momus instead.
While they drink, Benoit, the landlord, arrives to collect the rent. They give him lots of wine so that he becomes drunk and starts to tell the people his adventures about love. He then says that he is married, but the others throw him out of the room. The money that should have been used for paying the rent is divided among the group so that they can have a good time
The other Bohemians go out, but Rodolfo stays alone for a moment in order to finish a newspaper article, promising to join his friends soon. There is a knock at the door, and Mimì, a seamstress who lives in a flat below, enters. Her candle has blown out, and she has no matches; she asks Rodolfo to light it. She thanks him, but returns a few seconds later, saying she has lost her key. Both candles go out. It is dark, and the couple try to feel their way about. Rodolfo wants to spend time with Mimi. He finds the key, but does not tell her and puts it in his pocket. In two very famous arias (Rodolfo's "Che gelida manina — What a cold little hand" and Mimi's "Sì, mi chiamano Mimì — Yes, they call me Mimì"), they tell each other about their different backgrounds. Rodolfo’s friends call for him to come. He would prefer to stay there with Mimì but she decides they should both go together. They go out singing about their love for one another.
[change] Act 2
In the part of Paris called the Quartier Latin - (Latin Quarter) a crowd has gathered. Street sellers are selling things. The friends are happy. Rodolfo buys Mimi a bonnet. The friends go into a café.
As the men and Mimi dine at the café, Musetta, who used to be Marcello's sweetheart, arrives with Alcindoro, an old, rich minister. She talks to him as if he is a little dog. She is tired of him. She sings a naughty song ("Quando me'n vo — When I go along"), hoping that Marcello will be interested in her again. Soon Marcello becomes mad with jealousy. To be rid of Alcindoro for a bit, she pretends to have a tight shoe and sends him with it to the shoemaker. As the group sings, Musetta and Marcello fall into each other's arms.
The friends have to pay for the meal, but they have not got enough money. Musetta gets the bill to be paid by Alcindoro. The sound of soldiers is heard, and, picking up Musetta, Marcello and Colline carry her out on their shoulders while everyone claps. When all have gone, Alcindoro arrives with the repaired shoe. He looks for Musetta. The waiter hands him the bill. He is horrified by how much he has to pay, and sinks into a chair.
[change] Act 3
At the toll gate
At the toll gate, peddlers pass through and enter the city. Amongst them is Mimì. She has a terrible cough. She tries to find Marcello, who lives in a little tavern nearby where he paints signs for the innkeeper. She tells him of her hard life with Rodolfo, who has left her that night. Marcello tells her that Rodolfo is asleep inside, but he wakes up and comes out looking for Marcello. Mimì hides and hears Rodolfo telling Marcello why he left Mimi. At first he says Mimi does not love him seriously, but then he tells the truth: he left her because she seems to be dying of a terrible illness: (tuberculosis, which was called "consumption" in the 19th century). Rodolfo is poor and can do little to help Mimi. He hopes that a rich man may fall in love with her and pay for her to have medical treatment. Out of kindness towards Mimì, Marcello tries to stop Rodolfo telling him all this, but she has already heard everything. She has to cough, and Rodolfo realizes she is there. They sing of their lost love, and agree that they should separate, but they love one another so much and agree to stay together until the spring. In contrast to this loving couple, Marcello and Musetta now quarrel.
[change] Act 4
Back in the garret
Back in the attic Marcello and Rodolfo are both sad at losing their loved ones. Schaunard and Colline arrive with a tiny bit of food. They pretend they are having a big feast, and they all dance. Musetta arrives with news: Mimi, who had found a rich gentleman, has now left him and is wandering in the streets feeling very ill and weak. Musetta has brought Mimi back with her to the attic room. Mimi is helped into a chair. Musetta and Marcello leave to sell Musetta's earrings in order to buy medicine, and Colline leaves to pawn his overcoat. Schaunard leaves quietly to give Mimi and Rodolfo time together. Left alone, they remember their past happiness. They remember their first meeting. Rodolfo gives her the pink bonnet he bought her, which he has kept as a souvenir of their love. The others return, with a gift of a muff to warm Mimi's hands and some medicine, and tell Rodolfo that a doctor has been called, but it is too late. As Musetta prays, Mimi dies. Rodolfo collapses in tears.