About this Recording
8.660003-04 - PUCCINI, G.: Boheme (La) (Humburg)
English 

La Boheme

La Boheme

 

Giacomo Puccini was born in Lucca in 1858 into a family with long-established musical traditions extending back at least to the early eighteenth century. It was natural that he should follow this tradition and become a musician, and after the death of his father, when the boy was five, it was arranged that he should inherit the position of organist at the church of S. Martino, which meanwhile would be held for him by his uncle. He was trained as a chorister and as an organist, and only turned to more ambitious composition at the age of seventeen. A performance of Verdi's opera Aida in Pisa in 1876 inspired operatic aspirations, which could only be pursued adequately at a major musical centre. Four years later he was able to enter the conservatory in Milan, assisted financially by an uncle and by a scholarship. There his teachers were Antonio Bazzini, director of the conservatory from 1882 and now chiefly remembered by other violinists for one attractive addition to their repertoire, and Amilcare Ponchielli, then near the end of his career.

 

Puccini's first opera was Le villi, an operatic treatment of a subject better known nowadays from the ballet Giselle by Adam. It failed to win the competition for which it had been entered, but won, instead, a staging, through the agency of Boito, and publication by Ricordi, who commissioned the opera Edgar, produced at La Scala in 1889 to relatively little effect. It was in 1893 that Puccini won his first great success with his version of the Abbe Prevost's Manon Lescaut, a work that established him as a possible successor to Verdi. La Boheme followed in 1896, Tosca in 1900 and Madama Butterfly in 1904. His last opera, Turandot, was left unfinished at the time of his death in 1924.

 

La Boheme is based on a novel by Henry Murger, Scenes de la vie de Boheme, and a play derived from it by Murger and Theodore Barriere. Murger, of German origin, lived a life of poverty in Paris comparable to that of his characters and died there in 1861. Puccini began work on the new opera, with his librettists Giacosa and Illica, in 1893, a fact that he revealed when Leoncavallo, who had chosen the same subject, urged his prior claims on it.

Leoncavallo's work was eventually performed a year after Puccini's and proved no rival to it in popular esteem. There were difficulties at first in deciding the precise form of the action and the composer insisted on certain modifications in Illica's original draft.

 

La Boheme was first performed at the Teatro Regio in Turin on 1st February 1896, under the baton of a new conductor, Arturo Toscanini. Puccini was induced by his publisher Ricordi to agree in the end to the choice of theatre, the scene of his successful Manon Lescaut three years before. Milan, in any case, would have brought dangerous public opposition from Leoncavallo's publisher Sonzogno. Initially the opera won no great praise from critics or public, lacking, as it did, the more obvious and more extravagant romantic appeal of Manon. Since then it has become one of the most popular operas of the Italian repertoire.

 

Set in Paris in the middle of the nineteenth century, the opera centres on the tragic love of the poet Rodolfo and the seamstress Mimi, both living in poverty, but separated through Rodolfo's jealousy, to be together only when Mimi is on her death-bed. The tightly constructed score of the opera contains numerous cross-references, echoing coincidences and repetitions in the libretto. The opera opens in the cold garret occupied by Rodolfo and his friends, where he first meets Mimi, and closes in the same garret, when she returns there to die, after a period of estrangement. In the first act Rodolfo had warmed her cold hand in his: in the last she calls for her muff to warm her frozen fingers. The central scenes of the opera take the lovers, in their first happiness, to the festivities of the Cafe Momus and Musetta's comic treatment of her elderly lover, and in final pathos to the bitter winter outside the tavern where Musetta flirts with customers, exciting her lover Marcello's jealousy, and where Mimi overhears Rodolfo's declaration of his continuing love for her and his certainty of her approaching death, if she stay with him.

 

La Boheme owes its very considerable success very largely to the unity of its construction, the precise correspondence between music and drama, always avoiding overstatement, economical in its effects and as significant in its use of the orchestra as it is of the singers. Illica's prose draft provided an admirable dramatic frame-work, modified by Puccini's own forcefully proposed changes, with a telling pattern of incidents leading to the final scene. This was equally admirably summarised in the verse of Giacosa, leading to the first of three immensely successful collaborations with the composer, regarded by some as Puccini's masterpiece.

 

Synopsis

 

CD1

Act 1

The scene is an attic of a house in the artists' quarter of Paris. There is a large window from which can be seen the roofs of houses, covered with snow. In the room there is a fire-place, a table, a small cupboard, a book-case, four chairs, an easel, a bed, two candlesticks and many packs of cards. Rodolfo, a young poet, is looking out of the window, while Marcello is at work on his painting, The Passage of the Red Sea. His hands are cold, and he blows on his fingers from time to time, to warm them (1). Marcello complains of the cold, but jokingly suggests revenge by drowning Pharaoh in the Red Sea. Rodolfo, meanwhile, admires the view from the window, the smoke from the chimneys, although their own stove is cold. Marcello continues to complain of the cold and the falseness of Musetta, and Rodolfo points out that love is like a stove that needs a great deal of fuel. Marcello suggests burning one of the chairs, but Rodolfo, preventing him, has a better idea. He will burn the play he has written, and the two sit warming themselves in front of the burning pages. The door opens and their friend, the philosopher Colline, comes in, stamping his feet. He throws a bundle of books onto the table. He complains that he has been unable to pawn his property because it is Christmas Eve (2), and the three friends joke about the burning play. Rodolfo laments briefly the end of his drama, and Colline moralises, as the flames die down (3). Two boys come in, one of them carrying food, wine and cigars, and the other wood for the fire (4). The three friends are amazed, and seize on the provisions, while Colline carries the wood to the fire. The musician Schaunard comes in, and throws some coins on the ground, telling his friends of his good luck, how an English nobleman has employed him to play and sing to his parrot. The others interrupt the story, more interested in the provisions Schaunard has brought. He suggests that they should drink first at home and then go out to celebrate. Rodolfo closes the door and they go to the table to pour out wine. At this point there are two knocks at the door, and the landlord Benoit annoul1Ces himself (5). After a brief consultation they let him in and offer him a glass of wine. Benoit has come for the quarter's rent, but the young men constantly fill up his glass and jest with him over his amatory conquests. Benoit confesses his liking for a buxom girl (6), and at this point Marcello with feigned anger interrupts and accusing him of immorality they push him towards the door, ironically wishing him a happy Christmas. Now they make ready to leave for the Cafe Momus. Rodolfo, however, must stay behind to finish an article, which will only take him five minutes, and he holds a candle for the others to descend the stairs. Coming in again, he shuts the door, clears a corner of the table and prepares to write, breaking off from time to time for thought (7). There is a timid knock at the door and their neighbour Mimi comes in, seeking a light for her candle. She has a fit of coughing, and is about to faint. Rodolfo makes her sit down and brings water to revive her. He offers her wine, which she reluctantly accepts, and then seeks to leave. She thanks Rodolfo and wishes him good evening, but then finds she has dropped the key of her room (8). Her candle, which Rodolfo had lit for her, is blown out and Rodolfo runs to bring his own from the table, but that too is blown out by the draught on the staircase. The room is in darkness. Rodolfo shuts the door and the two of them search for Mimi's key, which Rodolfo finds and pockets. As they search, Rodolfo touches Mimi's hand, which he holds (9), telling her to wait until the moon shines brightly enough for them to see again. He will tell her who he is, while they wait, a poet and a writer, a man of imagination. Now Mimi tells her own story (10). Her real name is Lucia and she is a seamstress, embroidering flowers like the flowers of the poets: she lives alone in a garret, where, after winter, she can welcome the first light of spring. She breaks off, to apologise: she is just an importunate neighbour. Rodolfo's friends shout out to him from below in the courtyard (11), and he opens the window, allowing a few rays of moonlight into the room, and shouts down that he has nearly finished his work, and will join them at the cafe with a friend. Rodolfo sings in praise of Mimi's beauty, as she stands in the moonlight (12): the two are in love.

 

Act II

It is Christmas Eve in the Latin Quarter of Paris, the scene is a square, where many streets meet, at one side the Cafe Momus. The place is crowded with people - soldiers, servant-girls, children, students, working girls, gendarmes and so on. There are street vendors, hawking their wares. Rodolfo and Mimi walk together, while Colline stands by a rag-shop, Schaunard outside a tinker's, buying a pipe and horn, while Marcello wanders from one to another. The shops are decorated with tiny lamps, while outside the Cafe Momus there is a huge lantern, with customers sitting at the tables outside the cafe. We hear the sound of the crowd, the hawkers selling oranges, chestnuts and trinkets, the crowd exclaiming in appreciation, and street urchins adding their own noise to the din (13). Schaunard tries out the horn he has bought, which he thinks out of tune (14): Colline examines the repairs now made to his coat and Rodolfo and Mimi move towards a bonnet-shop, while Marcello delights in the busy scene. The friends approach the cafe, amid the hubbub, but can find no table outside. Meanwhile a shopkeeper standing on a stool offers underclothing and nightcaps for sale, to the amusement of the urchins. Colline, Marcello and Schaunard come out of the cafe carrying a table, followed by a waiter with chairs. The noise they make annoys some of the townspeople sitting there, and they leave. The voice of the hawker Parpignol is heard in the distance, while Rodolfo and Mimi rejoin their friends. Now Rodolfo introduces Mimi to the others, his new inspiration (15), to their amusement. Parpignol now approaches, pushing a barrow of toys, decorated with flowers and paper lanterns, and followed by an enthusiastic crowd of urchins. The mothers of the children attempt to drag them away, but the children resist. The friends order from the waiter, and Parpignol moves on, followed by the children. Marcello asks Mimi what Rodolfo has bought for her (16) and she shows him her new bonnet. The others comment on Rodolfo's talents as a lover, but a remark by Mimi briefly revives Marcello's bitterness. They drink a toast, but as Marcello catches sight of his beloved Musetta, followed by a fussy, over-dressed pompous old gentleman, he calls instead for poison (17). The old man, Alcindoro, follows her breathlessly, like a servant, as he remarks, and Musetta takes the table next to the friends, where she makes her Lulu, as she calls him, sit down. The friends comment on Musetta's expensive clothes and Marcello explains her inconstant character, while she tries to attract their overt attention with increasing irritation. She calls to the waiter, complains that her plate smells and throws it on the ground, while Alcindoro tries to calm her. Alcindoro orders supper, while Musetta complains that he is boring. A group of working girls see her, with her old admirer, and burst out laughing. Eventually Musetta can restrain herself no longer and confronts Marcello directly, to the delight of his friends, although Rodolfo and Mimi remain preoccupied with one another. Musetta, gazing at Marcello, now tells of her life, wandering along the street, admired by all the men (21 ). Alcindoro is horrified, while Musetta continues to celebrate her conquests, and he becomes more and more agitated. Mimi realises that Musetta is really in love with Marcello, and now Schaunard and Colline stand up to watch the scene, and Marcello too is about to go, while Rodolfo and Mim1 continue their own conversation. Suddenly Musetta calls out, pretending to feel a violent pain in her foot (19), and sends Alcindoro off to find a pair of boots for her instead of the tight shoes she is wearing. As soon as he goes, Musetta and Marcello fall into one another's arms. A waiter brings the bill, and the friends hand it round, as a march is heard in the distance. They feel for money (20), but have nothing. Musetta calls for her bill, as the marching patrol draws nearer, and tells the waiter to put the two together and give the bill to her friend, Alcindoro, who will pay. The patrol marches into the square, led by a stalwart drum-major, and as they pass on they are followed by Marcello and Colline carrying Musetta, without her shoe, Rodolfo and Mimi, and Schaunard blowing his hunting-horn. Alcindoro comes back, carrying a carefully wrapped pair of new shoes, to be greeted by the waiter with the bill.

 

CD2

Act III

The third act opens at the Barriere d'enfer, by the toll-gate, with a tavern, with streets leading off in either direction. The tavern sign is Marcello's painting, The Passage of the Red Sea, written underneath At the port of Marseilles. Light shines from the tavern window into a gloomy February dawn.

The ground is covered in snow and the trees are grey and gaunt. There is a brazier, with custom-house officers seated by it, snoring. There is an occasional sound of revelry from the tavern (1). A gang of street-sweepers approach the toll-gate and call for admittance to the city, and one of the officials stirs himself and goes to open the gate. The men pass through and he closes the gate again. The sound of merriment comes from the tavern, singing accompanied by the clinking of glasses (2), followed by the voice of Musetta.

A group of milk-women approach the gate, which is opened for them, as the dawn grows lighter. They are followed by peasant-women, carrying baskets. The officials move their bench and brazier, and at this moment Mimi comes in. She reaches the first of the trees, and bursts out into a violent fit of coughing and then approaches the sergeant and asks him the name of the tavern where the painter is working (3). He shows her and as a serving-woman comes out of the tavern, she asks to speak to Marcello. Other people pass through the toll-gate and the matins bell of the Hospice of Ste Therese is heard. It is day, at last, a gloomy winter day.

 

Couples leave the tavern, followed by Marcello, who greets Mimi in surprise (4). He explains that he earns money by painting and Musetta by teaching the customers to sing. Mimi is looking for Rodolfo, who loves her but now has left her out of jealousy. Marcello advises her to pan from Rodolfo for good and explains how he and Musetta are united by their own good humour. He will help her finally to pan from Rodolfo, who now lies asleep on a tavern bench. She breaks into a fit of coughing again, to Marcello's alarm, and tells him how Rodolfo has left her that night, telling her everything is finished. Mimi hides, as Rodolfo comes out, telling Marcello that he wants to leave Mimi, now that his love for her is dead, only to revive when he looks into her eyes (5). Marcello advises separation, if love brings such misery and jealousy. Rodolfo complains of Mimi's behaviour, which Marcello doubts. Rodolfo agrees (6), and goes on to recount his true love for her, her illness and increasing weakness and approaching death, all this overheard by Mimi. Rodolfo blames himself for the poor conditions in which she must live with him. Mimi is like a rare flower, wilting in Rodolfo's poor room (7).

 

Mimi is racked by another spasm of coughing, and Rodolfo rushes towards her, anxious. Musetta's laughter is heard from the tavern, as she flirts with the men there, and Marcello goes in. Mimi bids Rodolfo farewell (8): she must die, and now she asks Rodolfo to send her the few possessions she has left in his room, the presents he has given her. He can keep the little bonnet that she has treasured as a souvenir of their love. Rodolfo sadly pans from her (9). While they sadly remember their love, there is the sound of breaking plates and glasses, and Marcello is heard angrily quarrelling with Musetta. The alteraction between one pair of lovers accompanies the sad parting of the other. Musetta's quarrel with Marcello ends in her fury, as she shouts angrily at her lover and storms off, while he goes back into 1he tavern. The scene ends with the gentler parting of Rodolfo and Mimi.

 

Act IV

The scene is as in the first act. In the attic where the friends live together again, Marcello is painting and Rodolfo sitting at the table trying to write (10). Rodolfo has seen Musetta riding in a carriage and finely dressed, and she has told him that she has no feeling of love: her finery is compensation enough.

Marcello tries to force a laugh, but is upset. He tells Rodolfo he has seen Mimi riding in a carriage, dressed up like a queen. Rodolfo is equally annoyed, and curses his pen, which he throws onto the floor, as Marcello throws down his brush and secretly takes out a bunch of ribbons that he kisses. Rodolfo laments Mimi's falseness, and Marcello regrets his lost love (11). The former takes out of the table-drawer Mimi's bonnet, which he clasps to his heart, but tries to conceal his feelings from Marcello, asking what time it is (12), as they await the return of Schaunard, who now comes into the room carrying bread, and accompanied by Colline, with a paper bag, from which he takes out a herring. The friends sit down at the table and pretend that they are at a banquet, water serving for champagne, and the salted fish for salmon, the bread for parrots' tongues. The mock feast is to be followed by singing and dancing, as Schaunard announces (13), and the mock-ball begins, leading to a feigned quarrel and duel with fire-irons between the musician and the philsopher. Their merriment is interrupted by the sudden arrival of Musetta (14), who brings with her Mimi, now seriously ill and unable to climb the stairs. The men help her in and make her as comfortable as they can on a bed that they drag forward. Musetta explains to the others how she had heard that Mimi had left her protector, the old viscount, and was destitute and dying. She has just found her, exhausted and begging to be taken once again to Rodolfo so that she may die near him. Mimi, meanwhile, is happy now and embraces Rodolfo. Musetta asks what they can give Mimi, but the friends have nothing, no wine and no coffee. Mimi complains of the cold she feels: she has no feeling in her hands, which Rodolfo, as once before he had done, tries to warm them in his own. Schaunard and Colline sit apart, sadly, while Musetta takes off her earrings and tells Marcello to go quickly and sell them, to buy medicine for Mimi and to pay for a doctor. Musetta and Marcello leave the room, and Colline philosophically plans to part with his coat to raise money (19), telling Schaunard

 

 

 

 


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