This is maybe the most staged opera ever, billed as "the romance of the original bohemian love story" by Opera Australia for their 2020 performances (in Sydney of course, and set in Berlin in the 1930s). Don't panic, it's finished. The celebrated designer Baz Luhrmann produced a version for OA in 1990 on a shoestring budget, since revived overseas. The NY Times critic Anthony Tommasini had some critical and thoughtful things to say about its New York production in 2002. In the museum in Parma, Italy (Verdi's home town), you'll find a complete libretto with a missing act (insert between Acts 2 and 3). Apparently it explains some otherwise puzzling aspects of Act 3 (at the Paris city gate) - but anyway, the present four acts are enough.
Unlike the current OA offering, Puccini set La Bohème in Paris in 1837-8, and as with Tosca was specific about the scenes. The garret on the Left Bank, symbolic of starving poetasters ever since. The Latin Quarter cafe, the toll gate at the Barrière d'Enfer of Paris. He composed it, with librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, to premiere in Turin in 1886, fourteen years before Tosca. Toscanini (aged 28) conducted. History says it was not well received there - Wagner was the big fashion brand; but still, it established his reputation and fame as it quickly spread to opera houses worldwide. The story is based loosely on “Scenes of Bohemian Life” by French writer Henri Murger (1847-9). Britannica has a good synopsis, background and cast list.
This opera has so many wonderful pieces it's hard to pick a short list - rather a contrast in style to the later Tosca. This page goes through the best of them with a good discussion and audio/video links to some of the greatest performers.
Musically it has always been popular though one does hear mutterings of "mawkish sentimentality", especially re Act 4. In Act 1, look for Si mi chiamano Mimi (They call me Mimi) - sung here by Nicole Car, and Luciano Pavarotti's rendering of Che gelida manina (Your tiny hand is frozen). In Act 2, the flirtatious Musetta sings Quando m'en vo (When I go along, aka Musetta's Waltz): compare on this link Anna Netrebko, Maria Callas, Kiri Te Kanawa, and other outstanding sopranos. The great, poignant, Act 3 quartet is Addio, dolce svegliare (Goodbye, sweet awakening) as Mimi and Rodolfo agree to part, with Marcello and Musetta quarreling in the background. In Act 4 the duet Sono andati? (Have they gone?) is a moment of sweet reminiscences against a mood of impending death. Here's Luciano Pavarotti and Mirella Freni.
But must we see the opera in the nineteenth century Romantic love-and-death framework (usually marked by the heroine's death from consumption)? Yes, La Bohème has all of that, but is there a deeper theme here? As we saw in Tosca Puccini can be placed thoroughly in the verismo dramatic style, gritty realistic stories of ordinary people in ordinary lives that go horribly wrong. His ability to draw real recognisable characters that change, develop, and fail is remarkable in all of opera.
Looked at through that lens, we have a story of little people enduring a hopeless poverty as best they can. Mimi, ill, looking for a protector; the four never-to-succeed "artists" pretending they have a future (or giving up on it); Mimi and Musetta resorting to prostitution as they must; and at the end nobody understanding how to deal with impending death except by pointless tokenism. The love of Mimi and Rodolfo is conditioned by their inability to care when care is needed (well, they'll try again until Spring). They recognise their own insignificance and isolation in an uncaring world, and see no way out. This, I think, makes the Romanticist slide into death even more poignant, because their constricted lives and indifferent world make it inevitable.
Our production comes from the New York Metropolitan Opera in 2008 - designed and produced by Franco Zeffirelli, and under the baton of Nicola Luisotti. Mimi (soprano) is Angela Gheorghiu - our Tosca in the Covent Garden production this month, Rodolfo (tenor) is Ramon Vargas, Musetta (soprano) is Ainhoa Arteta. The Zeffirelli production has been going on and off at The Met since 1963; latest incarnation is this season (with new cast of course!) Read this Observer review, which has quite a different view of what the opera is about than mine, above. What do you think?
The last words go to "cburrell":
"The closing pages of La Bohème are devastating. For the first time since the opera began, the orchestra falls silent for an extended period, so that we begin to hear stage noises, footsteps scuffling on the floor. The singers drop into spoken dialogue, frantic and halting. By these means, Puccini achieves something quite remarkable: he conveys something of the sheer eeriness of death. When it is done well, the effect is unforgettable."