Who's ready for another Opera Spotlight Podcast?
I am so excited to be doing another one of these. I think they are so helpful at getting yourself acquainted with an opera before listening, watching, or seeing it live! I hope you enjoy these opera spotlights as much as I do. Take a listen! And here's the transcript for those who would like to read it:
Hello beautiful ladies and gents and welcome to Classically Abby. Today we will be doing an opera spotlight on Puccini’s La bohème, or The Bohemians. Now, the first thing I’d like to clear up right off the bat is that La bohème is in Italian, not French. The original novel and play, Scènes de la vie de bohème, were written in French by the author Henri Murger, however the libretto for Puccini’s opera was written in Italian by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. Together, they used his stories as a basis for the opera, although much of Acts II and III are of the librettists own invention. I chose La bohème because the characters are so incredibly well-drawn through both the libretto and the musical writing. You can’t help but fall in love with the motley crew, despite the fact that they are somewhat morally questionable, and Puccini lovingly sets every word, allowing the audience to see into the hearts of each and every person onstage.
La bohème was written in 1896, It was the subject of tension, as another composer, Ruggiero Leoncavallo, composer of Pagliacci, had also begun work on a work of the same name. When Leoncavallo found out that Puccini was writing his own version, he asked him to cease and desist, claiming he had rights to the story, despite the fact that La bohème was in the public domain. Puccini refused, having had no knowledge that Leoncavallo had begun composing around the same time, and is quoted as saying, “Let him compose. I will compose. The audience will decide.” It seems audiences did decide, as Leoncavallo’s remains mostly forgotten and Puccini’s version is one of the most frequently performed operas in the world.
We’ll be listening to the 1973 recording of La bohème featuring Mirella Freni, Luciano Pavarotti, and Elizabeth Harwood, and conducted by Herbert von Karajan. As well, I’ll be including my rendition of Si, Mi Chiamano Mimi that I recorded for my YouTube channel. Feel free to head over and watch it. I chose the 1973 recording for a few reasons. This is truly the master recording of this incredible opera. Mirella Freni is a wonderful Mimi and she sings her with such tenderness. And Pavarotti sings with so much joy, just as Rodolfo should. As well, Herbert von Karajan is one of the best conductors of the 20th century and he guides the orchestra with masterful precision.
Now let’s talk about the plot and hear some music! To follow along and hear the full recording, head over to my Spotify and follow the Opera Spotlight: La bohème playlist.
You’ll notice that the opera begins without an overture – only about 20 seconds of scene-setting music, comically loud. The curtain rises on the scene and we immediately know where we are. It’s a dilapidated room on Christmas eve, the top floor of an old building. In it, we see a young man painting, Marcello, and another gazing out the window. They complain about the cold – they are poor artists and unable to afford anything to heat themselves with. The man looking out the window, Rodolfo, writes plays but decides to burn his manuscript for warmth. What should be a sad and depressing moment is played for laughs.
In come the two other artistic friends, Colline, the philosopher, and Schaunard, the musician. They carry food and wine, and Schaunard explains his good fortune – he was hired by an old man to play his violin to the man’s pet parrot until it died. As the men set the table, excited to fill their bellies, Schaunard stops them and tells them to save the food – they are going to celebrate by going out to eat at Café Momus!
All of a sudden, a knock rings out on their door. Benoit, their landlord, is here to collect their rent! They ply him with wine, ask him of his amorous adventures, and wait for him to reveal – that he’s married! Feigning moral indignation, they shoo him out of their apartment and keep the rent money for themselves, planning to spend it out on the town that night.
As all the friends leave, Rodolfo stays behind to finish something he’s writing before he plans to join them. Another, softer knock is heard on the door and when Rodolfo opens it, a young, pretty woman is standing there. Her candle has gone out and she doesn’t have another match to light it with. Rodolfo is immediately taken with her and helps light her candle, but she feels faint. After Rodolfo offers her some wine, she feels better, but she realizes she has lost her key. Depending on the production, it is unclear whether Mimi has lost her key on purpose to spend more time with this fetching young man, or it was actually an accident. But what isn’t an accident is Rodolfo finding the key and putting it in his pocket so she has to spend a bit more time with him. It’s an adorably sweet moment. When they are chatting, Puccini has the orchestra seem like it’s on tenterhooks – the beginning of love.
As they are looking for the key, Rodolfo touches Mimi’s hand and feels how cold it is. Thus begins one of the most famous arias in the repertoire and it is so absolutely sweet and indicative of young love that I had to share at least the beginning with you all! He tells of himself and tries to brag about what he does to impress her.
Mimi follows up with her own introduction, and the fact that Puccini wrote two of the most famous arias back to back is absolutely mind-blowing. This is an excerpt of my rendition.
The two young people realize they have fallen in love and sing together in a duet as they leave the apartment, ending the act.
Act II begins in the Latin Quarter that same evening. A crowd is out, and Rodolfo and Mimi appear and he buys her a little pink bonnet from a street vendor. As they sit down with their friends at Café Momus, Musetta, Marcello’s old flame, appears with her admirer, a rich man named Alcindoro. She misses Marcello and sings a seductive song to everyone in the square but directed specifically at her ex-boyfriend. It’s hilarious, one of my personal favorite arias to sing, and a scene stealer.
Despite the fact that she’s being so forward, Mimi notices that Musetta actually does love Marcello, and it isn’t just some ploy. To rid herself of Alcindoro, Musetta pretends that her foot is in horrible pain and she needs Alcindoro to go to a shoemaker. He leaves and she falls into Marcello’s arms.
The bill for the table arrives at Café Momus and Schaunard’s purse seems to have been stolen! Musetta’s brilliant solution? To put the whole tab on Alcindoro’s bill! The crew runs off and Alcindoro returns to see a huge bill before sinking into a chair in surprise as the curtain falls.
In Act III a few months have passed – it’s February and Mimi has a terrible cough. She has been looking for Marcello, for he has moved to a tavern for which he paints signs. After finding him, she confesses that her life with Rodolfo has been difficult because of his jealousy, and that he left her last night. Marcello shares that Rodolfo is asleep inside, but Rodolfo appears to speak with Marcello while Mimi hides.
After trying to convince Marcello that he has left Mimi because of her flirtatiousness, he actually reveals that he knows Mimi is sick with consumption, dying, and that he wants her to find a better, richer man to take care of her. When Marcello tries to stop Rodolfo so that he doesn’t hurt Mimi’s feelings, Mimi comes out from her hiding place, crying. Marcello leaves the two alone as he has heard Musetta’s giggles from inside the tavern and wants to confront her.
In this moment, Mimi tells Rodolfo that she will break up with him, sharing her love for him in this next aria. She speaks nostalgically, remembering the better times and telling him to keep the pink bonnet that he bought for her on Christmas Eve. Puccini beautifully weaves the original tune of her first aria through the beginning of this moment, nostalgically having her as well as the audience remember her first encounter with Rodolfo.
They realize that they love each other too much to break up before spring, when the world is beautiful and reborn. They agree to stay together for a bit longer, just as Marcello and Musetta are yelling at each other over her flirtatious nature – a dichotomy if ever there was one. This musical excerpt is a quartet that begins with a duet for Rodolfo and Mimi as they decide to stay together for just a few more months.
The last act raises on the same set as the first act, though this time it’s spring in the little apartment. Rodolfo and Marcello are working, quote unquote, however they are both really day dreaming about the women who have now gone. They both have seen Mimi and Musetta dressed like queens about town and they miss them terribly. After a rather comical scene with all four men as they set up their meager food as if it were a banquet, Musetta appears at the door.
Mimi has left her rich patron and was wandering the street, looking haggard. She asked Musetta to bring her to Rodolfo. They help her onto the bed. Musetta goes with Marcello to sell her earrings for medicine to help Mimi. Mimi mentions that her hands are cold, and, in this next excerpt, Colline sings to his old coat that he is going to sell so he can buy her a muff to keep her hands warm. The coat represents an old friend to him, and the beginning sounds like a funeral march if you listen carefully.
Schaunard leaves too to give the young couple some time together. She tells Rodolfo that her love for him is everything, and he shows that he kept the pink bonnet. She is delighted and they relive their first meeting together. It is so incredibly sad and nostalgic as they relive their first moments together musically, her trying to feel better as she is dying. Listen to this short excerpt, where Puccini has her repeat her line from her first aria, then again softer and in a lower key as if isn’t strong enough to repeat it.
The others return and present her with the medicine and the muff, and Mimi tells Rodolfo she’s just going to nap for a moment. But as they turn away, Musetta praying, Schaunard realizes that Mimi has already died. Rodolfo rushes to her bedside, crying Mimi, as the curtain falls.
And that’s the entirety of this incredibly moving, beautiful opera.
Now you have some context before going to a production of La bohème! Have you heard La bohème before? What’s your favorite Puccini opera? Let me know in the comments on my blog post and on YouTube. You can always follow me on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube at Classically Abby. And thanks for listening!
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Hey! I'm Abby, the creator of Classically Abby, a commentary, opera, beauty, and lifestyle brand dedicated to looking at the world from a classic perspective. I'm the first Conservative Influencer and I'm an opera singer with three degrees in performance!