|About this Recording
2.110385 - PUCCINI, G.: Bohème (La) [Opera] (Malmö Opera, 2014) (NTSC)
Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924)
Libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa
Rodolfo, a poet – Joachim BÄCKSTÖM Tenor
Townspeople, children, street-vendors, waiters, guards, enforcement officers
Malmö Opera Orchestra and Chorus
Stage Direction: Orpha PHELAN
A production by Naxos in association with Malmö Opera and PDV Records.
Rodolphe is writing an article for the local paper while Marcel is working on his latest sculpture, The Red Sea. Together with their philosopher friend Colline, they try to stay warm by burning pages from Rodolphe’s new play in their stove. The musician Schaunard has meanwhile been paid for his music making and arrives with proper fuel for the fire, sustenance for their stomachs and money for entertainment. Determined to have fitting Christmas celebrations, all four bohemians are about to leave for the bar Momus when their landlord Benoit calls on them demanding overdue rent. Feigning horror when Marcel exposes Benoit’s extra marital infidelities, the young men throw out the bewildered landlord—who exacts his revenge by turning off the electricity. They divide up Schaunard`s money and start to head out for the evening. Rodolphe must first finish writing the article but promises to join his friends at Momus soon. Homeless girl Mimi attempts to gain access to the bohemian’s garret and is surprised to find Rodolphe still there. She invents an excuse for her imposition—her candle has gone out. Rodolphe is enchanted and asks her to stay. Soon she is under his spell. They leave together for Momus.
Later that night
The streets of Paris are full of last minute shoppers, sellers, revellers and tourists. Schaunard looks at some instruments for sale, Colline buys a book and a coat, and Rodolphe buys a little hat for Mimi. But Marcel is not in the mood for shopping; he has recently been dumped by Musette, who arrives presently with her sugar daddy Alcindore. Delighted that she still has what it takes to get everyone’s attention, Musetta invents an excuse to get rid of Alcindore before she throws herself on Marcel. The Salvation Army appears and the bohemians take advantage of the hubbub to slip away quietly, leaving the bill to be paid by Alcindore on his return.
A couple of months later
It’s early morning. Delivery women and street sweepers are just starting work while some partygoers are still drinking in a bar where Musette and Marcel work. Mimi arrives in search of Marcel’s help, confiding that Rodolphe is moody and jealous. Marcel suggests that Rodolphe and Mimi split up because their love is too intense. Mimi starts to leave but sees that Rodolphe has also come to seek Marchel’s advice and she eavesdrops on their conversation. Rodolphe begins by saying that Mimi is flirtatious and not to be trusted, but before long he reveals the real reason for his unhappiness: Mimi is dying and he cannot provide adequate care for her. Rodolphe spots the distressed Mimi and attempts to cover up his brutal words. Unable to make a clean break, they agree to stay together until the spring.
Mimi and Musette have left their lovers and Rodolphe and Marcel are practically destitute, with neither love nor creature comfort to soothe them. They attempt to entertain themselves with Schaunard and Colline. Musette appears with Mimi who she has found alone and distraught on the streets. Rodolphe tries to make Mimi comfortable. The rest of the friends go away to sell a few small possessions in the hope of scraping together some money for Mimi’s needs. Alone together at last, Mimi can declare her deep love for Rodolphe. The bohemians return with a hand warmer, some medicine and some money for Mimi. But they bring too little, too late.
Puccini the bohemian
Giuseppe Illica and Luigi Giacosa wrote the libretto to La Bohème, based freely on Henri Murger’s novel Scènes de la vie de bohème (Bohemians of the Latin Quarter). The novel was initially a number of short stories serialized in a Paris magazine from 1847 to 1849. But Giacomo Puccini’s own life as a poor student of music at the conservatory in Milan also provided inspiration for the opera.
Puccini was a fifth-generation musician in a family of mainly church musicians. It was not a rich family, and he was one of seven children whose father died when Giacomo was six years old. He obtained a grant from the Queen of Italy and financial assistance from an uncle to enable him to attend the conservatory. In summer 1883, at the age of 25, Puccini graduated from the conservatory where he had studied for three years. He was penniless. He could hardly buy food and clothes or pay the rent. He had constantly been forced to pawn his belongings.
He saw an advertisement in a theatrical magazine for a competition to write a one-act opera. For this he composed Le Villi (The Fairies). He did not win the competition, but older colleagues and good friends financed not only the premiere but also all the copying of the score. Le Villi (1884) was an instant success, and Puccini was immediately commissioned to write a new opera. But this did not bring him much money. During the years when he wrote his second opera Edgar (1889), Puccini went on living as a poor bohemian. The premiere of Edgar was not well received, and he successively revised the opera.
In Puccini’s diary, Bohemian Life (1881) he records what he spent on bread and milk. There were no excesses. One can also read about the time Puccini bought a herring. He cooked this solitary herring to feed four people: besides himself, his brother Michele, their roommate, and a friend. Puccini commented on this diary entry in an interview with the Italian journalist Eugenio Checchi, who wrote an article about the composer for Nuova Antologia in 1897
After his third opera, Manon Lescaut (1893), Puccini was able to pay off his last debts and he had his financial situation under control. After the premiere of La Bohème (1896) Puccini was never again short of money.
La Bohème forever
“Puccini’s La Bohème has everything—it is a perfect opera!” exclaims Orpha Phelan, the Irish director who is visiting Malmö Opera for the hird time.
“The wonderful music blends perfectly with the plot and the words,” Orpha continues. “But above all it is because it is about young people. Young people’s lives and their tragedy.”
La Bohème portrays some young people’s romantic outlook on love and the brutal end to their youth. There are operas that have stories intimately associated with a time and place and do not lend themselves to being modernized. Giacomo Puccini wrote La Bohème at the end of the nineteenth century and the story is set around 1830. But the characters are not only at home there; they are equally at home in our times.
“The people are real. They are young, poor, and in love—and their story is universal,” says Orpha. “All that is needed is to understand what it is like to be young and in love!”
Bohemians exist today and their story is always relevant. And the story of bohemians and their love life is not exclusive to Paris—even though Henri Murger claimed in Bohemians of the Latin Quarter that Bohemia can only be found there.
“There’s a Bohemia in every city,” says Orpha, “if you can find it.”
Every city has old dilapidated neighbourhoods where poor people live. Areas which the middle class, if they happen to pass through, choose not to see. Rents tend to be low in these shabby neighbourhoods. So the bohemians move in and soon more and more artists and creative people come. The neighbourhoods become “interesting” and “exciting”.
“After ten years these districts become hip,” says Orpha, who arrives at a truth: “Bohemians have an intangible wealth—something that welloff people want to get at. And then the neighbourhoods become expensive.”
Orpha and Leslie Travers, the set designer and costume maker for La Bohème, have experienced this themselves. They have known each other for ages, worked together, lived as bohemians together as poor young artists in London. They know that bohemians live in a fleeting, transient world. It is a time that is troublesome economically, not to say impoverished, but immensely rich in ideas, inspiration, and creativity. Now they are established but they hope that certain aspects of bohemian life have not yet ended!
Bohemians of Paris
In this production, however, we are of course in Paris! The wonderful romantic city, made for falling in love …
“Anyone who has been in Paris in a slushy winter knows that there is nothing especially romantic about it!” Orpha does not want to idealize bohemian life. “Nor is there anything particularly romantic about choking to death in your own blood-mixed phlegm in a poor, ugly, cold neighbourhood. Not in Paris, not anywhere.”
And there is still tuberculosis today, in 2014. Much more and on a larger scale than people might believe. And it is the poor, the sick, and the homeless who suffer most.
“In the opera this misery is enacted against such oh-so-beautiful music. It’s that contrast that makes the opera great.”
Paris, city of carousels
In Paris there are carousels everywhere. There have always been carousels. And at Christmas and New Year the city puts out even more. And you can ride on them free.
“What is a ride on a carousel if not, just like bohemian life, a magic ride—a huge and wonderful adventure?”
And like the carousel, bohemian life moves in circles, as other people jump on and go round with you—for a while.
“The ride inevitably comes to an end, the light is turned off, and you’re back in reality,” says Orpha Phelan. “Bohemian life comes to an end and it can happen that, like Rodolphe, you stand there and realize what you ought to have done but didn’t… Because you were so busy with yourself.”
Close the window