La Boheme is not being performed at the 2020 Verona Opera Festival. Click here for the full list of performances.
The first of the three great operas of Giacomo Puccini's middle years (followed by Tosca in 1900 and by Madama Butterfly in 1904) La Boheme is today one of the great (and most performed) pieces in the opera repertoire. The libretto, by Illica and Giacosa, is taken from the earlier story by Henri Murger, which appeared in the early 1800s and was turned into a play, 'La Vie de Boheme', in 1849.
Its plot concerns the travails of a group of impoverished artists (or 'bohemians'), some of whom have to work as prostitutes, who must decide whether to trade love for success, and who face personal disaster - one of the characters contracts the then-fatal disease of tuberculosis. The movie 'Moulin Rouge' and stage show 'Rent' are both based in part upon the story.
Characters are as follows: Rodolfo, a poet (tenor); Mimi, a seamstress (soprano); Marcello, a painter (baritone); Schaunard, a musician, (baritone); Colline, a philosopher (bass); Musetta, a singer (soprano); Benoit, their landlord (bass); Alcindoro, a state councillor (bass); Parpignol, a toy vendor (tenor); a customs sergeant (bass).
In Act I, Marcello and Rodolfo are burning Rodolfo's poems as they have no fire wood. Colline enters complaining he's been unable to pawn his books. Schaunard arrives with wine, food and money - he has taken a job with a rich Englishman. Benoit arrives to collect the rent, but they ply him with booze and he leaves empty handed. They decide to go and get drunk in the Latin Quarter. Mimi arrives and she and Rodolfo profess their love: his aria 'Che gelida manina' (your tiny frozen hand); hers 'Si, mi chiamano Mimi' (yes, they call me Mimi); followed by a duet 'O soave fanciulla' (O, gentle maiden).
In Act II, the group take supper at a cafe. Marcello's former love Musetta arrives with her older, richer lover Alcindoro. She sends him to buy her new shoes and embraces Marcello. The group depart, leaving Alcindoro to pick up the tab when he returns. Musical highlights include 'Quando me'n vo soletta per la via' (When I go out alone in the street/Musetta's Waltz).
Act III. It's dawn on the snowy outskirts of Paris. A customs man admits farm women to the city. Mimi appears, looking for the home of the reunited Marcello and Musetta. Marcello emerges from a tavern (within which we hear Musetta's raucous laughter). Mimi complains to him of Rodolfo's jealousy. Rodolfo arrives, Mimi hides and overhears him saying he wants to part from Mimi - then he breaks down and admits that she is dying from consumption and their shared poverty can only make things worse. Mimi emerges, and the pair recall how happy they were. Marcello quarrels with Musetta and they part. Rodolfo and Mimi elect to remain together till the spring. Musical highlights include "Donde lieta usc' al tuo grido d'amore" (From here she happily left to your cry of love/Mimi's farewell).
Act IV sees Rodolfo and Marcello back in the garret, bemoaning their loneliness. Colline and Schaunard bring another meal (much poorer this time). The four dance and play fight, but then Musetta arrives, saying Mimi is downstairs - she has returned to Rodolfo to die. Everyone sells or pawns their last possessions to buy medicine. Mimi coughs and dies quietly, as Rodolfo runs to her side. Musical highlights in the final act include "O Mimi, tu piu non torni' (O Mimi, will you not return?, Rodolfo and Marcello), 'Vecchia zimarra' -(Old coat, Colline), 'Sono andati? Fingevo di dormire' (Have they gone? I was pretending to sleep, Mimi).
Giacomo Puccini was born in Lucca, Tuscany in 1858, into a musical family - though his uncle and tutor Fortunato Magi thought him a poor and ill-disciplined student. Continuing a long family association with the church, he began by composing devotional music. Enrolling in the Milan Conservatorio in 1880, he composed his 'A Messa' (popularly known as 'Messa di Gloria'). He was, by the standards of the time, an unprolific opera composer. 'Le Villi' was a one-act piece composed in his student days, but wasn't published and performed until 1884. Between that year and his death in 1924 he composed just nine operas, with Turandot unfinished when he died. Yet Puccini's genius was such that his work occupies a major role in the repertoire - with 'La Boheme', 'Tosca', 'Turandot' and 'Madama Butterly' among his operas. His partnership with composer Arturo Toscanini saw Puccini's work becoming huge hits on both sides of the Atlantic, with the operas playing successfully in New York.
Puccini's life bridged the late Romantic and the modern eras, and his work has perhaps suffered with the critics from its perceived lack of seriousness. Arguably, he was a victim of his own success, having huge popular hits, with hummable tunes such as 'Nessun Dorma' and 'O mio babbino caro'. Other Italian opera composers, such as Rossini and Verdi, have suffered similarly sniffy reviews.
Musically, though, the operas show enormous sophistication: he was writing popular pieces in the tradition of Verdi, but showing the influence of Wagner, adroitly using the orchestra's various timbres and combinations of instruments to suggest different moods and atmosphere. Narrative is also twinned with a supple use of orchestral colour. Other notable techniques are the use of leitmotif (specific combinations of notes or phrases to introduce certain characters). Popular and easy on the ear the tunes may be, but they overlay an extraordinarily rich and sophisticated tapestry of sound. Those of you who enjoy La Boheme should dig deeper, into the chamber music, songs and orchestral pieces - there are delights in store.
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