La Bohème, Opera by G. Puccini
Giacomo Puccini drew on both life and literature for what is possibly his most touching work, La bohème. While the story stems from fiction, specifically Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de bohème, the colour and realism Puccini adds to the tale come very much from his own experience; as a struggling music student, he eked out a hand-to-mouth existence as much as the characters do in his opera.
Rodolfo, Marcello, Schaunard and Colline, four young artists with barely a penny to their names, nonetheless decide that they cannot let Christmas Eve go by without a night on the town. Only Rodolfo, the writer of the group, hangs back from immediately joining his friends, unknowingly setting up the circumstances in which he meets Mimì, a seamstress as beautiful as he is poor.
Mimì and Rodolfo fall in love with one another and join the festivities, but barely more than a month later, Rodolfo has given up on Mimì. He knows she is desperately ill. The repeated motif of her coughing signals that most nineteenth century of ailments, consumption, which she will eventually succumb to. He abandons her, hiding his distress, not because he does not care for her, but because he does not have the means to help her recover from her illness.
A tearful reunion ensues, but Puccini does not resort to conjuring up a happy ending. Instead, and more satisfyingly for lovers of musical theatre, Puccini delivers the perfect opera; a work which combines some of the most beautiful and heartfelt arias and duets ever written, none more so than ‘Che gelida manina’ and ‘O suave fanciulla’ with wonderful ensemble set-pieces which place the audience directly in the eternal Paris of our imaginations.
La bohème received its premiere at the Teatro Regio in Turin on 1 February 1896 and went on to be a worldwide success, playing to audiences in Argentina, Egypt and Russia, as well as all over Puccini’s native Italy, within a year of its debut. It was first performed in Austria at the Theatre an der Wien on 5 October 1897; now it is the turn of the Wiener Volksoper to bring La bohème, an opera which reminds us more than any other, of what it means to be human.