By Mary Jane Matz
At the end of January in 1893, Giacomo Puccini, then 34 years old, was still a struggling composer, still hoping for a hit. Neither of his first two operas had become popular, but he had hopes for the future; and they were fully realized a few days later with the triumphant world premiere of Manon Lescaut. It made him famous almost overnight, boosted by the popularity of opera at the time. Within a week, Puccini was planning La Bohème.
The Source of the Opera
For the third time, Puccini chose a French story as his source, which is not surprising, since he always had an international eye and a broad point of view. After all, he traveled extensively all over Europe and visited South America once and New York twice and took side trips to places like Malta and Egypt! As for his operas, most were not based on Italian sources. In addition to his first three “French” works, he used French subjects for Tosca, taken from Victorien Sardou’s melodrama, and Il Tabarro, from a play about bargemen on the Seine. With its strong Grand Guignol underpinnings, it exuded French local color. From the American cultural scene he used plays by David Belasco, a Broadway producer who wrote Madame Butterfly and The Girl of the Golden West. It became Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West. Next came La Rondine, with its origins in Vienna. Beyond all this, Puccini admired Richard Wagner and actually saw Wagner operas in Bayreuth. In sum, he was never a purely “Italian” composer. That was something the Italian critics could never forgive, so they often railed at him for not being “national” enough and not hewing to Italian practice. None of the criticism mattered, for early and late Puccini paid no attention at all.
So it was that in 1893 he became interested in Henri Mürger’s popular Scènes de la Vie de Bohème, a series of little stories about Latin Quarter artists, their poverty, and their loves. Having first published these very personal accounts in installments in a French periodical, Mürger had then made them into a play and a novel. Puccini used both for his opera.
Creating La BohèmeTo transform this French material into a libretto, the composer turned first to Luigi Illica, one of several men who had collaborated with him in the problem-ridden development of Manon Lescaut. It had been nothing short of chaotic, with six or even seven people writing a text, and Puccini rejecting one act, one scene or one line after another. In the end the libretto of Manon Lescaut had to be published with no one listed as its author. But the hot-headed Illica could meet Puccini head-to-head, however demanding the composer might be.
From 1893 to 1896, Illica worked steadily on the project with the composer and with Giulio Ricordi, the powerful publisher who was Puccini’s mentor and sponsor. The first step: Illica wrote a scenario and then a drama based on the original play and novel. The poetic lines (required at that time by operatic convention) were then created by a revered poet-playwright, Giuseppe Giacosa, with Puccini and Ricordi adding their contributions to the text. This “four-man team” met often to discuss the work, batting around ideas and introducing new characters or new scenes. They also removed things that did not work, and Puccini even cut out one whole act! It was a process, not a single, lightning-flash act of creation. This same team of Puccini, Illica, Giacosa, and Ricordi later created Tosca and Madama Butterfly, which later joined La Bohème to make up the “trilogy” of Puccini’s most popular operas.
Puccini’s Bohemian Life in Milan and Tuscany
La Bohème became a window on the Left Bank culture of Paris, but it also opened windows on Puccini’s own life-experience. First it reflected what he had survived as an impoverished composer in the 1880s and early 1890s. “Miseria!” he would gripe in letters to his sister. So in the libretto, when the poet Rodolfo described the wretched conditions in his flat, Puccini could write about something he had actually lived through.
For years he rented cheap furnished rooms or tiny apartments, most in desperate condition. He pawned personal things, then had to ask his sister for money to get them out of hock. In the freezing winters of Northern Italy, he often had no heat. Nor was there enough money for a decent meal. In fact, we know what he ate: a couple of helpings of soup, with bread, cheese and wine; a simple plate of Tuscan beans and onions with bread and wine; or fried eggs, cooked on a spirit stove that he perched on top of his upright piano. Once when friends dropped in, Puccini and his mistress and his brother (all crowded into two or three rooms) had to sell and trade household items to scrape together enough money for grungy meat to make a stew!
Nor was all that miseria left behind in Milan. Parts of Manon Lescaut and most of La Bohème were written in Puccini’s bare-bones lodgings in Torre del Lago, a raw and primitive fishing village on a lake in Tuscany. On the day he moved in, all his possessions could fit on a single donkey-cart; and his mistress said, “We don’t have enough to eat!”
Among the fishermen and their families in Torre del Lago were several young artists who soon became Puccini’s friends. Together they hunted, fished, drank, ate, staged mock heroic battles, dressed up in sheets and acted like ancient Romans, and played cards — tresette and scopa and briscola. Their refuge and sanctuary was a wooden hut roofed with dried reeds from the lake. They called it their Club la Bohème, and their antics and shared life certainly provided Puccini with material for his depiction of the artists in La Bohème. Three of these men were even identified with three of the principal male characters in the opera.
One of them, Ferruccio Pagni, who was closer to Puccini than the others, wrote later that when Puccini finished La Bohème, they were all together, for he often composed at night, with people talking or playing cards as he worked. On that occasion, Pagni said, Puccini was “just writing the last bars [of the opera]” while he and their cronies played cards nearby.
“Be quiet, boys!” Puccini said. “I have finished!” Pagni and the others got up from the table and went over to the piano. “Now I’ll let you hear it. . . . This ending is good.” And he started to play Mimì’s last lines: “Sono andati.” As he played on and sang the words, Pagni said, they all had a sensation of “the eternal substance: Sorrow.” At the end, they were all crying.
So Puccini never had to invent any “Bohemian life.” These descriptions of his years in Milan and Torre del Lago come from real letters — Puccini’s own and those of friends and relatives. This means that La Bohème, for all its romantic haze, is basically a realistic work, a snapshot of Puccini’s early years. Nor did he ever forget those terrible days. Many years later, when he was the richest and most famous opera composer in the world, he remembered one of those plain meals, and he remembered it when he was in middle of the Atlantic Ocean, sitting in his private parlor in the Imperial Suite of a luxury liner. In a flash it all came back to him, and he longed to smell beef stewing on a rickety stove, as it had in those long-gone days.
The World Premiere of La Bohème
Far, far from being a series of star-turns, this is an ensemble opera about simple people who are almost destitute. As the first act opens we meet the four Latin Quarter artists: Rodolfo, a poet and journalist; Marcello, a painter; Schaunard, a musician; and Colline, a literary man and philosopher. They live from hand to mouth. The two women of the plot are Mimì, a frail girl who embroiders artificial flowers for a living, and Musetta, who sings for her living in cafes. When she is not with Marcello, Musetta trolls for elderly lovers; but in Act III, when she and Marcello are living together in an inn near the gates of Paris, they are broke, so she gives singing lessons to people who stay there, and Marcello “pays” for their room by painting murals on the outside wall.
These, then, are the people Puccini dearly loved. As he once said, he cared most about “little people with big sorrows.” Yet La Bohème is a full-scale opera, not a short verismo work about Sicilian peasants (as in Cavalleria Rusticana) or itinerant actors traveling in Calabria (as in Pagliacci). It would also be hard to imagine anything farther removed from the grandeur of the earlier operas of the 1800s: Donizetti’s shows about English royalty and nobility, for example; or Verdi’s Don Carlos, set in the court of Philip II of Spain, or Aida, set in the Egypt of the pharaohs. That is why La Bohème transformed its whole field, its genre.
The world premiere of La Bohème took place in the Teatro Regio in Turin on February 1, 1896, with young Arturo Toscanini conducting. Its cast was solid professionals, not queens and kings of the stage, so they were cut to the proper dimensions for this opera. In the end, its success swept everything else aside. It was everything Puccini had hoped for: a composer’s dream, for La Bohème is his opera, utterly and forever his.
Mary Jane Matz is the author of numerous books including Puccini: A Biography (2002) and Verdi: A Biography (1996). She is a frequent contributor to Opera News and many other publications.