Everything you need to know about Puccini’s La bohème (pronounced LA bo-EM) in one place, right here!
What is the story?
La bohème is based on Henry Murger’s novel Scenes de la vie de Bohème.
Four struggling bohemians – a poet, a painter, a musician and a philosopher are living together in Paris, when one freezing Christmas Eve their lives are changed forever. A girl named Mimì knocks on their door looking for a candle light, and she and Rodolfo fall in love.
However, the rush of love at first sight soon gives way to something much darker – it becomes clear that Mimì is desperately ill, and that Rodolfo, in his poverty, cannot provide for her. Our bohemians try to find their way, but are soon sharply awoken to the harsh realities of life…
Who are the key characters?
Mimì – a seamstress (soprano)
Rodolfo – a poet (tenor)
Musetta – a singer and Marcello’s on/off lover (soprano)
Marcello – a painter (baritone)
Schaunard – a musician (baritone)
Colline – a philosopher (bass)
We also meet the bohemians’ landlord Benoît in Act I, and Musetta’s rich admirer Alcindoro in Act II. The Chorus (and Children’s Chorus) appear in Act II as Parisians out on Christmas Eve, and in our production represent a whole cross section of society, from street urchins to nuns!
What is the music like?
La bohème contains some of opera’s best-loved music. Act I features three showstoppers back to back – Rodolfo’s famous aria ‘Che gelida manina’ (Your tiny hand is frozen) – in which he introduces himself – followed by Mimì’s ‘Mi chiamano Mimì’ (They call me Mimì), and then their soaring love duet ‘O soave fanciulla’ (O lovely girl in the moonlight), which culminates in a beautiful floated high C for the soprano.
Puccini’s score is also full of scene painting, evoking wintriness, the atmosphere of a busy Parisian café, or the boisterous energy of the bohemians as they work. Listen out for the opening of Act III, where flutes and harp perfectly conjure up the effect of snowflakes falling.
Each character has their own ‘leitmotif’ (a signature tune) which often announces their arrival, even if it’s just in the orchestra underneath. You’ll hear them again and again – and start to recognise the themes.
What is this production like?
Phyllida Lloyd’s classic production (designed by Anthony Ward) is one of the longest running at Opera North – it has been in the repertoire since 1993! It transports the action to late 1950s Paris – a time of existentialism and thriving café culture.
Each scene sits within a giant white frame reminiscent of a Polaroid picture – these are pivotal moments in the characters’ lives, captured and immortalised. The bohemians’ room is paint-splattered and full of odds and ends, inspired by various iconic artists’ studios. Red, the colour of passion and also of the festive period, is prominent throughout the whole opera.
Costumes are late 1950s inspired – Mimì is modelled on photographer Ed van der Elsken’s muse Vali Myers, and Musetta makes a diva-like entrance dressed in a big leopard print coat, bringing a much needed touch of comedy.
Who was the composer?
La bohème was written by Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), possibly the most famous opera composer of all time. The librettists were Luigi Illica (a playwright) and Giuseppe Giacosa (a poet), with whom Puccini also worked on his huge successes Tosca and Madama Butterfly.
Puccini was a student at the Milan Conservatoire (1880-1883), and his own experiences there meant that he could identify with La bohème’s characters – certain real-life incidents even made it into the libretto! When creditors came to call, he and roommate Mascagni (future composer of the famous Cavalleria Rusticana) would hide in the wardrobe, and Puccini even once pawned his only coat (à la Colline in Act IV) in order to be able to take out a young ballet dancer from La Scala.
Read more about Puccini and the ‘Bohemian life’»
A little history
The composition process for La bohème spanned three years, and was a stormy one. Puccini was notoriously difficult to work with, and Murger’s novel (which was really just a collection of short stories) needed completely re-shaping to give it a coherent dramatic form. The meetings of composer, librettists and publisher were described by Illica as “real battles, during which suddenly entire acts were torn to pieces”. Giacosa resigned three times and Illica also came close, tired of his work being rejected.
Another hiccup arose when it transpired that composer Leoncavallo (of Pagliacci fame) was working on his own La bohème, and claimed to have priority on the subject! Puccini, however, paid no attention, writing, “Let him compose. I will compose. The audience will decide.”*
By December 1895, La bohème was finally finished, and Puccini held a masked ball to celebrate its completion. The premiere took place in Turin, February 1896, conducted by a young Toscanini. Within just a few months, it was being performed in opera houses all over the world, and today remains the fourth most frequently performed opera worldwide.
*Leoncavallo’s La bohème has since sunk into obscurity…
Did you know?
— Despite working hard to create the ambience of Parisian street life, Puccini had never actually been to Paris when he wrote La bohème! His imaginative vision of the French capital totally convinced everyone – and continues to do so to this day.
— The libretto for a missing act for La bohème was discovered in 1957, which Puccini had obviously decided not to use. It fits between Acts II and III and is set at Musetta’s house, where Mimì is introduced to a wealthy Viscount. This explains Rodolfo’s strange jealousy in Act III and the derogatory references we hear to this ‘Viscontino’.
— The 1996 musical Rent is based on La bohème – many of the characters and plot elements are drawn from the opera, with tuberculosis replaced with AIDS. There are also constant nods to Puccini with songs such as ‘Light My Candle’, and a fragment of Musetta’s Waltz is featured in the music.