About this Recording
8.553151 - PUCCINI, G.: Bohème (La) (Highlights) (Orgonasova, Welch, Gonzales, Previati, Humburg)

Giacomo Puccini (1858 - 1924)

La Bohème (Highlights)
Libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa & Luigi Illica

Mimì …………………………… Luba Orgonasova
Rodolfo ………………………… Jonathan Welch
Musetta ……………………….... Carmen Gonzales
Marcello ………………………....Fabio Previati
Schaunard ……………………….Boaz Senator
Colline …………………………..Ivan Urbas
Alcindoro ……………………… Jiri Sulzenko
Sergente ……………………….. Stanislav Benacka

Slovak Philharmonic Chorus
Bratislava Children's Choir
Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra (Bratislava)
Will Humburg

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 Abbé Prévost's Manon Lescaut, a work that established him as a possible successor to Verdi. La Bohème 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 Bohème is based on a novel by Henry Murger, Scènes de la vie de Bohème, and a play derived from it by Murger and Théodore Barrière. 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 Bohème 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 Mimì 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 Mimì, 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 Café 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 Mimì overhears Rodolfo's declaration of his continuing love for her and his certainty of her approaching death, if she stays with him.

La Bohème 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.

The first act opens in the attic of a house in the artists' quarter of Paris. The young poet Rodolfo is gazing out of the window over the snow-covered roofs, while Marcello, a painter, is at work on his biblical painting. The Crossing of the Red Sea. The two men talk together. Marcello ready to take revenge for his cold hands by drowning Pharaoh in the Red Sea. Rodolfo, meanwhile, looks at the smoking chimneys of other houses, while their own stove remains unlit. Marcello laments the falsity of Musetta, and Rodolfo assures him that love, like a stove, needs stoking. Rejecting the former's idea of bumming one of the chairs, so that they may warm themselves, Rodolfo offers to burn the manuscript of his play.

Other friends return, the musician Schaunard with some money he has earned, and they set out for the Café Momus, leaving Rodolfo alone. There is a timid knock at the door and he is joined by Mimì, who lodges in the same house and seeks a light for her candle. She is seized with a fit of coughing and is revived by Rodolfo. About to leave, she cannot find her key (Oh! svelltata! La chiave della stallza). Her candle blows out and Rodolfo runs to bring his own from the table, but that too is blown out by the draught from the staircase. The room is in darkness and the two now search for the key. Their hands meet and Rodolfo exclaims on the coldness of her little hand (Che gelida manina). He tells her they must wait for a shaft of moonlight, so that they may find the key. He tells her that he is a poet and writer, and she, in return, tells him her name, Mimì (Si. Mi chiamano Minì), explaining that her real name is Lucia and that she is a seamstress, living alone. Rodolfo's friends call to him from the street below, while Rodolfo praises the girl's beauty, as she stands in the moonlight (O soave fanciulla).

The second act opens outside the Café Momus in the Latin Quarter of Paris. The place is crowded with street vendors and people out for enjoyment on Christmas Eve. The hawker Parpignol approaches, wheeling a barrow of toys, decorated with paper flowers and lanterns. He is followed by an enthusiastic group of urchins (Viva Parpignol). As he moves on, the friends order from the waiter, and Mimì shows them the new bonnet that Rodolfo has bought her. Marcello's friend Musetta comes in with the old man Alcindoro, whom she is teasing and provoking (Essa! Musetta!), while seeking to attract the attention of the young artists, particularly that of Marcello (Quando men vo soletta). Eventually she packs old Alcindoro off on an improbable errand and joins Marcello. Their bill is brought (Caro! Fuori il danaro!), as the sound is heard of soldiers marching nearer. Musetta tells the waiter to add the bill to that of Alcindoro, who will settle them both, and the friends leave together, merrily following the soldiers.

The third act brings a very different scene. It is a cold February morning at the Barrière d' enfer (Hell's Gate), the toll gate at the entrance to the city. To the left is a tavern, with Marcello's great painting, The Crossing of the Red Sea, hanging outside as an inn-sign. The ground is covered with snow and the trees are grey and gaunt. Occasional sounds of revelry can be heard from the tavern. A gang of street-sweepers approach the toll-gate and call for admittance to the city (Ohe, là le guardie!), and one of the officials lazily stirs himself and goes to open the gate. Mimì appears, racked by a fit of coughing. Approaching the sergeant, she asks if this is the tavern where the painter is working. As a serving-woman comes out of the tavern, Mimì asks to speak to Marcello. Day is now breaking and the place is coming to life, as more people pass through the gate. Couples now leave the tavern, followed by Marcello, who greets Mimì in surprise, but she had hoped to find him there (Mimì? - Speravo di trovarti qui). He tells her that he is earning a living by painting and that Musetta is teaching the customers to sing. Mimì is looking for Rodolfo, who loves her but has left her, through jealousy. Marcello advises her to part with Rodolfo for good and he will help to do this: Rodolfo is now sleeping on a tavern bench. She breaks into a fit of coughing, but hides when Rodolfo comes out of the tavern. He tells Marcello that he wants to be done with Mimì (Marcello. Finalmente!): his love for her is dead, but revives when he looks into her eyes. Marcello advises separation, if love brings such misery and jealousy, although he doubts the truth of Rodolfo's complaints about Mimì. Rodolfo agrees and goes on to express his love for Mimì and his fears that she must soon die. He blames himself for the poor conditions in which she must live with him. She is like a rare flower, wilting in his wretched room. Mimi bursts out coughing, and Rodolfo turns anxiously towards her, surprised that she is there. Musetta's laughter is heard from within, as she jests with the customers. Marcello goes into the tavern, leaving the lovers alone together. She asks him to send her few possessions (D'onde lieta usci), for now she will leave him He can keep the little bonnet that he bought her when they first met, as a souvenir of their love. The sound of breaking plates and quarrelling between Marcello and Musetta is heard, and the latter storms off, leaving Marcello to go back into the tavern again. Rodolfo and Mimì have a sadder and calmer parting, looking forward to the end of the bitter winter of their love and the coming of spring, the season of flowers.

The fourth act takes place in the attic room where Rodolfo and Mimì had first met. Marcello is painting and Rodolfo sitting at the table trying to write. He tells Marcello that he has seen Musetta riding past in a carriage (In un coupé? - Con pariglia e livree): she has told him that she has no feeling of love, for her finery is compensation enough. Marcello tries to force a laugh, but is clearly upset. He tells Rodolfo that he has seen Mimì riding in a carriage, dressed up like a queen. Rodolfo is equally annoyed and curses his pen, which he throws on the floor, as Marcello throws down his brush and secretly takes out a bunch of ribbons that he kisses. Rodolfo laments Mimì's duplicity and Marcello regrets his lost love. The former takes out of a drawer Mimì's bonnet, which he clasps to his heart, but tries to conceal his feelings from Marcello, asking him what time it is.

Rodolfo's friends Schaunard and Colline come in with simple food, bread and herrings, and they sit down to eat, pretending that it is a banquet, with water serving for champagne. The feast is followed by a ball, and then a mock-duel, with the fire-irons. They are interrupted by the arrival of Musetta with Mimì, now too ill to climb the stairs without help. Musetta explains how she had heard that Mimì had left the protection of the old viscount, and is now destitute. She is brought in and helped to a couch. The friends, who are as poor themselves, have nothing to give her, but Musetta takes off her ear-rings and tells Marcello to go and sell them to buy medicine for Mimì and for a doctor. Colline philosophically plans to sell his coat (Vecchia zimarra) for the same purpose. Mimì is left alone with Rodolfo and turning to him, asks if the others have gone (Sono andati?): she has so much to tell him. They recall their first meeting, when she first told him her name, and how cold her hands were. She is shaken by another fit of coughing. The others return, Marcello with medicine, having seen the doctor. Rodolfo asks him what the doctor has said (Che ha detto il medico?), but there is obviously little hope. Mimì sleeps, while Musetta murmurs a prayer, as she prepares the medicine, but all is too late. Mimì is dead, and Rodolfo in anguish throws himself on her body, calling her name.

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