By Basil De Pinto
Comparisons are odious but we indulge in them anyway. Where the arts are concerned, we have to discipline ourselves to take each work and judge it for its own individual worth. Because a Botticelli is “pretty,” we cannot disparage it with reference to an El Greco, which is anything but. Although Don Pasquale is not Otello, we can still appreciate its bel canto splendors. La Bohème is one of the masterpieces of the Italian lyric tradition and rightly deserves its place in the canon. It is also well loved, as it should be. A work is not good because it is popular, but popular because it is good. Think of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or the waltzes of Johann Strauss. Verdi thought that the public was the supreme judge in these matters and he was right.
Puccini was not an “intellectual” composer, but he was extraordinarily intelligent. He was a man of the theater, he knew how to appeal to his public and, of course, he was a very astute businessman. He also understood the sentiment of his time, namely that a human interest story about believable people was the surest way to captivate an audience. But what he achieved in La Bohème reaches far beyond clever tactics. The emotional content of this opera, simply put, touches the heart in the most fundamental way. It is an irresistible tale, like that of Romeo and Juliet, where young love and a tragic end reach across historical and social boundaries to sweep us up and hold us fascinated.
In 1896 Puccini was already an experienced composer, but he had only one surefire hit behind him, Manon Lescaut. He would go on to write many other fine works but La Bohème is the unique example of his art at its finest. Why is that so? First of all he paints a large canvas with extraordinary economy of means. The score of La Bohème, without intermissions, takes barely two hours to perform. Sir Thomas Beecham, a famous interpreter of the opera, said he loved it because “Puccini gets right to it,” with no dallying along the way (and remember that Beecham was also a distinguished conductor of Wagner, who tends to dally quite a bit). There is an almost headlong movement in the first two acts from the lovers’ first meeting and the Christmas Eve celebration with their friends to the bittersweet row in the third act and the tragic music at the close. The pace has to do not with rushing anything, but with an inevitability that is both understandable and heartbreaking.
But if the composer’s strokes are few they are sure and clear. The characters in La Bohème are at once instantly recognizable and completely unforgettable. The two sets of lovers, whose Act 3 quartet is the musical and emotional heart of the opera, appeal to us not because we might meet them every day on the street—poets, painters, streetwalkers—but as real persons whose human traits might belong to anybody. Rodolfo is impetuous, dreamy, given to flights of fancy, sketching those “castles in the air” he sings of when he tells Mimì who he is. His next-door neighbor is frail and sickly, the kind of person easily overlooked until she bares her soul and reveals a poetic sensibility to match Rodolfo’s. Her opposite number is the extrovert Musetta, loquacious and vivacious and wily in the ways of the world. Marcello the painter, warm and outgoing, sees his mirror image in Rodolfo, the two of them capable of both generous loving and destructive jealousy.
The other persons of the drama are not minor, but skillfully crafted pieces of the overall mosaic: Schaunard, the savvy musician who brings home the bacon, and Colline, the reserved philosopher who cracks an off-color joke in Latin at the Café Momus and who gets a small but touching aria to grace the final scene. The buffo roles of Benoit and Alcindoro complete the muster of large-as-life characters that everybody knows, precisely, by heart.
Puccini’s musical palette does not have as yet the symphonic richness to come in The Girl of the Golden West or the game attempt at oriental exoticism in Turandot but it is amply endowed with the secure touch of a composer completely in command of his idiom. The score of Bohème is, unlike the libretto, the work of a single hand, steady, committed, moving with a sure touch from one scene to the next, enveloping the characters and situations with living and breathing musical form.
Think of the familiar opening rumble in the orchestra and the ascent to a swaying sound in the strings: even if we were not looking at the stage we would know that the curtain is going up, action is about to happen. And it starts right in: Rodolfo and Marcello, joking about the cold; the burning of the manuscript one act at a time, then the whole play; the flare-up and the warmth, the predictable heap of ashes. The other friends enter, then the landlord demanding the rent and his summary dismissal—all of it proceeding in rollicking fashion to bright, perpetual motion music.
With Mimì’s entrance a whole new mood transpires. Suddenly there is a quiet hesitancy in the music that depicts the shy, timid creature who immediately enchants Rodolfo, revealing something about him as well, a softer, more reflective side. They exchange intimate portraits of themselves and then join in the rapturous duet that fully illustrates the exorbitant, and perhaps rash, nature of their total immersion in one another. They proceed at once from the cramped garret to the big crowded space before the Café Momus, full of color and life, where Musetta and the hapless Alcindoro join them, she to catch Marcello in her snare, he left to pay the bill for everybody else’s party. The whole scene lasts barely a few minutes but it is an ingenious depiction of a riotous and carefree way of life that carries within it the seeds of conflict to come.
If we have been observing carefully, we notice a quiet exchange between Mimì and Rodolfo in the midst of all the noise and gaiety: he gently but surprisingly firmly tells her never to play the coquette like the scandalous Musetta, and she rather limply reassures him. As the curtain rises on the crucial third act we sense that the personal qualities of these two will lead them down a road that will tear them apart.
There is a brusque, almost brutal opening measure. The melancholy sound of a pair of flutes depicts the snow falling on a cold dawn at the entrance to the city. This is no longer the Paris of bright lights and exuberant laughter, but a place of darkness and poverty where street sweepers and peasant women hawk their meager wares. Her lovely theme ushers in an exhausted, failing Mimì, who calls for Marcello. She tells him of the intolerable strain of living with Rodolfo, who loves her but rails at her every movement that is not completely wrapped up in him. Marcello, warm and caring, understands what the central issue is: Can the lovers remain together in such a state?
Mimì hides as Rodolfo enters, blustering to his friend that he is sick of Mimì’s flirtatious ways. Marcello berates him, but then the real truth emerges. Rodolfo knows that Mimì is deathly ill; he is overcome with remorse that his poverty is making her illness worse; grief, not jealousy, is the basis of his roughness toward her. Mimì, coming forward, has the courage to say, in her touching farewell, that they must separate. What follows is an astonishing piece of musical and dramatic composition. Marcello re-enters, dragging along the ever rebellious Musetta. In the quartet that ensues, these two lovers are bickering and insulting one another, while Mimì and Rodolfo affirm both their love and their need to say goodbye. The soaring lyricism of the one pair merges with the half comic byplay of the other. The composer’s achievement lies in the contrast that keeps both musical lines intact so that they contrast but never obscure one another. We hear with great clarity a diptych combining both rage and sweetness. This is musical ingenuity of the highest order.
But the technique is there to serve the dramatic need. Because Puccini understood so deeply the psychological traits of his characters he was able to invest them with a musical form that expressed exactly the torrent of emotion on display. That is perhaps the most salient feature of the opera as a whole. At every turn the music heightens and enhances the drama as it unfolds. Raucous laughter, holiday merrymaking, the rush of first love, the sadness of parting, and the gaze into the abyss of death: Puccini’s music embraces it and exposes it with realistic precision but, more importantly, with deep compassion and empathy for the people and events he transcribes for us to experience vicariously. The end of the scene echoes the beginning: the stage is empty, the snow begins to fall again, and the same ominous chords come crashing down once more. This scene has to rank with the most moving of any in opera. Again, although brief it encompasses powerful emotion along with musical means that enhance the action and draw the audience into its wrenching intensity.
Interestingly, the last act does not come as an anticlimax after this great scene, but rather as a dramatic necessity. Mimì comes home to the garret where she and Rodolfo first met. Again the scene opens to comic horseplay that quickly gives way to the pathos of the heroine’s last moments. Briefly left alone the lovers recall the joy of discovery in this place, their self-revelation and their pledges of fidelity. All together, the Bohemians support one another, sharing a common loss. Perhaps each of them is thinking of the heights and depths that all must face, and finding courage in the sorrow that envelops them all.
Puccini gave the world at least a half-dozen masterpieces and put his characteristic marks of musical invention and dramatic incisiveness into one each of them. But no matter how much we enjoy and esteem them all, La Bohème has a unique hold on the operatic public. It has spawned stage and screen approaches like Baz Luhrmann’s Broadway version and the rock incarnation Rent. It has been the showcase for established stars and for hopeful beginners. It is indestructible because its inherent greatness both defies mediocrity and encourages artistic excellence. More than anything else Puccini knew the human heart and in La Bohème he mastered it once and for all.
Basil De Pinto is a writer who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. A frequent contributor to LA Opera programs, he has also written for the opera companies of Washington, Seattle, Atlanta and Fort Worth.