A Note from Music Director James Conlon

Mimì and Violetta: Timeless 19th-century Parisian Heroines

As the final curtain of our 2018/219 season fell at the end of June, Giuseppe Verdi’s Violetta Valéry had just expired in the presence of her beloved Alfredo, his father, her housekeeper and her doctor. The heroine of La Traviata had died of consumption, her young death a tragedy.

The year: circa 1848. The place: Paris.

As the curtain rises on our 2019/20 season, a humble garret reveals the crowded living quarters of four poor but vivacious young artists; it will return in the final act as the scene of the tragic death of Mimì, in the presence of her lover Rodolfo, his three cohorts and her friend Musetta. The heroine of Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème will die of consumption, her young death a tragedy.

The year: circa 1848. The place: Paris.

In that tumultuous year, La Dame aux Camélias (The Lady of the Camellias), a novel by Alexandre Dumas fils, was published. Its success led to its adaptation for the stage in 1852. The author recounts a romanticized version of the life and death of a woman with whom he was infatuated.

In that same tumultuous year, writer Henry Murger was forced to interrupt his publication of a series of articles about his friends, loves and experiences while living a “Bohemian” existence. But after the turmoil of ‘48, he continued the next year, also agreeing to collaborate on a theatrical adaptation of his stories, the success of which caused it to be published in 1851 in novel form as Scènes de la vie de Bohème.

Two novels, two French authors, one city: Paris.

Two operas, two Italian composers, premiered in two cities (Venice and Torino) and both men approaching 40 years of age.

Dumas’ heroine was based on the short life of Alphonsine Plessis, who later called herself Marie Duplessis. She was born in the provinces of Normandy, started professional life in Paris at the age of 16. She first worked in a dress shop, then became what was to be termed for much of the 19th century as a “grisette,” before ascending to the highest ranks of Parisian society.

The term grisette loosely meant a young working-class woman; the expression referred to the inexpensive gray dresses they customarily wore. Gradually, the meaning accrued more characteristics, including one who led a “bohemian” lifestyle, and those who supplemented their modest incomes by posing as models and sharing their favors with affluent men.

Two women from Murger’s novel, Francine and Mimi, were grisettes. Puccini drew characteristics from both to create an amalgamated Mimì for his opera. And Murger’s novel also introduced Musette. The differences between Violetta and Mimi, Musette and Francine are minimal, details within a larger canvas. They all came from the provinces, worked in Paris and rose as far as fortune would allow.

The categorization and terminology describing these women was arbitrary and sometimes vague: Violetta (for simplicity I will refer to each by their operatic names) was a “courtesan,” that is, the paramour of a wealthy lover. The “lorette” (Musetta) was primarily a sex worker and the “grisette” (Mimì and Francine) had regular employment but supplemented her income by sharing time with various men. It is not inconceivable that the paths of these four women might have crossed.

And then there were their fatal illnesses. Of the four women only Musetta will survive, the others will all succumb to tuberculosis, known at the time as consumption. Though there is nothing at all redeeming about suffering from that terrible disease, somehow it was adopted by writers at the time and romanticized, giving its victims an allure and appeal that seemed to deepen their tragedy. The gradual wasting away of the victim provided a telling parallel with the love stories that waxed and waned.

The two operas, however, are very different. Verdi was already a grand master and recognized as such when La Traviata premiered in 1853. When La Bohème premiered in 1896, Puccini was just on the cusp of a major success. Verdi was pioneering new material in his operas. It was extremely rare (and daring) to use contemporary subject matter, and it was bold to portray a woman who had “strayed from the way,” as Verdi’s opera’s title tells us. Having struck out into new territory, he just as abruptly changed direction and was never to write a similar opera again. He had, however, created a heroine for the ages and she, Violetta, has reigned supreme ever since.

In other words, the theme of the consumptive courtesan was essentially ignored by Italian composers until the next generation. Just one month shy of the fortieth anniversary of La Traviata’s premiere, Puccini produced an opera on a similar theme: Manon Lescaut. The subject, taken from Abbé Prevost’s 18th-century novel and also set in Paris, had been already visited by French composers Daniel Auber and Jules Massenet when Puccini decided to try his hand at the story. The result was a defining moment in the young composer’s life. Paris of the 18th century had served him well, and so would Paris of the 19th, which he would explore again, after La Bohème, in La Rondine and Il Tabarro.

Puccini then faced off with the young and already successful Ruggero Leoncavallo in 1896 and 1897, each composing his own operatic version of La Bohème. It was clear, first from Manon Lescaut, that bohemian/working-class/romanticized “illicit” women tantalized the public and won its sympathy. Leoncavallo serves up very different episodes from Murger’s stories, and places as much attention on Musetta and Marcello as on Mimì and Rodolfo. Leoncavallo’s Bohème never attained the success of Puccini’s and has remained a rarity. Puccini’s Bohème took the operatic world by storm and has remained among the most beloved operas generation upon generation.

It is interesting to note that although there is much in common in the substance of Bohème and of Traviata (the details, of course, differ), the music of each is distinct, as is each composer’s compositional approach to theater.

Puccini takes off not from the Verdi of La Traviata, but from the Verdi of Otello and Falstaff. By the 1890s Verdi—retired and aged but not yet deceased—had transformed the operatic structure into long, through-composed acts without interruption. They were no longer divided up into “numbers”: arias, duets etc. The combined wisdom and genius of modern Italy’s greatest composer and of Germany’s Richard Wagner had provided the models for the next generation.

To fully appreciate Bohème’s new and daring innovation is to realize that Puccini had successfully combined comedy and melodrama in a way that both Wagner and Verdi had eschewed. Both of those composers of the previous generation had essentially accepted and maintained the strict division of serious and comic musical theater. Die Meistersinger and Falstaff, both masterworks on every level, were essentially comedies that contained an emotional and humanizing depth rarely achieved by others. But they were each one-of-a-kind, and the composers spent most of their lives producing serious drama.

Verdi had experimented, dabbled perhaps, in comic scenes and light-hearted characters (Fra Melitone in La Forza del Destino, Oscar in Un Ballo in Maschera) but never, until Falstaff, had he produced a successful comedy. (Un Giorno di Regno, his second opera, had been a failure, and that seemed to have scared him off for most of his career. Perhaps, before laying down his pen, he wanted to prove to himself that he could write a successful comedy).

Puccini brilliantly intertwined the comic and serious in La Bohème in a way that was equaled in the 20th century only by Richard Strauss. It is noteworthy that, having successfully combined these once opposing elements, Puccini returned to melodrama. He maintained comic episodes or characters in Tosca and Madame Butterfly, but would save most of his humorous work for Gianni Schicchi, his one comic masterpiece. Puccini, with his genius for melodrama, essentially exhausted the idiom. None of his contemporaries or successors were ever able to surpass him.

Puccini and his librettists, Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, extracted from Murger’s very episodic novel what they needed. As its title suggests, those were Scènes de la Vie de Bohème. They selected four scenes, skipped character development, and yet successfully engage us in the drama two young couples, and the tragic consumptive death of the opera’s heroine. With characteristic theatrical ingenuity, Puccini threads levity and seriousness together. The first two acts are essentially humorous, or at least show how the young bohemians use humor to cope with poverty. Both the first and fourth acts start with the repartee and humor that defines the four young artists, only to abruptly shift gears with two coups de theâtre: Mimì’s appearance and the life-changing transformative scene of love at first sight in Act One, and her reappearance in Act Four, when she returns to the bohemian’s garret to die.

Puccini and company took only the scenes they needed from Murger, just as Peter Tchaikovsky took from Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. Pushkin recounted a tale of a love that could have been, and where the tragedy is not death but life: the tragedy of missed opportunity, life with the realization that two ships had passed in the night. Tchaikovsky reduced Pushkin’s work from a distanced and sometime cold, objective look at contemporary society, to a highly emotional personal story that spoke to his muse.

Similarly, Puccini excised elements that would dilute the emotional experience he prepared for the audience. Importantly he does not recount the end of the novel, which shows us that the surviving characters settle into bourgeois life and will remember their bohemian days only through distance. Puccini would not have been true to himself nor to his muse, had he adopted that distance. He wrote operas about the “suffering of little souls” as he said. It must end in tragedy. And to intensify that tragedy, he and his librettists transformed the original Mimi/Francine so that her status as “grisette” was de-emphasized. The audience was not to be troubled with what they might have considered her morally questionable lifestyle. He considerably polished her image, removing from view her rough edges and her not completely sympathetic personality. Puccini ends his opera with the unforgettable final reunion with Rodolfo in the garret, which parallels the ending of La Traviata but has no precedent in Murger. The Mimi and Francine of Murger would both expire, not in their lovers’ arms, but in the cold anonymity of hospitals for the poor. Whereas it was Verdi often intended to challenge his public, and did so with La Traviata, Puccini wanted to bathe it in tears. “The only music I can make is that of small things,” he said.

In the end, it is significant that Violetta and Mimì, who share a life trajectory and experience in the ways of mid-19th-century Paris, became two of the most universally beloved women in operatic history.