It is so hard to judge La Bohème with any objectivity. Anyone into opera will have noticed this piece is practically omnipresent, and bits of its music have come to permeate the more popular end of the classical music landscape. This may lead some to accuse Puccini of cheapness and facileness. On the contrary. For once the highest art has been wrought with just the right touch to make it irresistible to just about anybody. Any cheapness comes from the generations of arrangers and composers who have copied it: especially its orchestration, which was even "distilled" into "elevator music", once ubiquitous in post-war department stores and supermarkets. Those sweet strains playing a vague tune you could never make out were frequently in exactly Puccini's harmonizations/orchestrations.
No, Puccini is the real thing as a creator. By the time he gets to doing La Bohème in his career, his musical skills, especially his 'melos', have reached mastery, and everything in him has come together to produce this perfectly simple masterpiece.
Not so simple, really, but the complexities and subtleties are all there to render this as naturalistic a portrayal of real life as possible. It is therefore the ultimate 'Verismo' opera. Absolutely nothing but normal diurnal reality is portrayed.
Playing to the highest echelons of society as it always has, opera is amazingly enamoured with risqué themes, and moral questionings underlying so many of its plots. It so exerts a constant pressure of change upon culture.
In La Bohème we get a slice of contemporary life amongst a social group that most bourgeois people would have agreed, a the time the piece was written, is "beyond the pale." The story is really quite dreary if you completely forget the music. A group of destitute artists are freezing in in the Latin Quarter of Paris on Christmas eve. They elude their landlord looking for rent and then decide to go out. They are all artists of various types and they all try to take each other's minds off their destitute condition with banter and pretense. Schaunard the musician tells them he will treat them all and they leave.
The poet Rodolfo stays behind and a neighbour, Mimi, comes looking for a light. The scene unfolds with perfectly gauged developments: the candle gets lit, she faints, she loses her key, the candles go out, they grope in the dark, touch. These are somehow archetypal moves and remind most of us of our first fumbling encounters in reaching out for love to another person. Things move quickly from there, and, as in all the great operas, the pair discover that they are both in the love of their life.
Rodolfo hears that Mimi is a seamstress, and she describes her life and humble condition with heartbreaking modesty and unassuming sweetness. Puccini is the master of such moments of portrayal.
On the way down the stairs to meet Rodolfo's friends we hear the immortal strains of the lovers voices entwining in the initial raptures of love. It is of course the music that suggests and emphasizes all these wonderfully human passions, how they kindle, sustain and grow, as it subtly flows from the orchestra in a seeming inexhaustibility of melody and colour. Nobody hearing this opera, at this point ever worries about the dubious laxness of proper social convention displayed by these louche characters. The music overwhelms us with its sympathy.
The Second Act street scene has even more shocking displays of 'loose' Parisian life. We see an elaborate set showing a Paris street and the Café Momus. [This act can be expanded into a major production number, depending the resources of the house and budget.] There are vendors, ragamuffin children, crowds, and finally a military band. We meet Musetta, a singer, former lover of the group's writer, Marcello. Musetta is obviously escort to a sugar-daddy. She diverts the sugar daddy and goes off with Marcello again, whom she truly does loves. The sugar-daddy is amusingly left paying everyone's bill.
In Act Three, we see the further evolution of these passionate affairs. The plot has such a sense of reality in the way it develop, that many people, oddly, hardly remember the details. What sticks in most people's mind is the music's capturing of mood and setting outside the gates of Paris on a winter morning. There is always falling snow and a fabulous sustained mood of gradually increasing morning activity.
Musetta and Marcello are living in a small porter's cottage. Rodolfo is there after having left Mimi again after arguing and jealousy, but we discover he is really worried about her health. She seems to be dying and he hopes she can find a better benefactor to her than he can be. She overhears this, and they decide to have it out, that they have to split up, and hopefully remain friends, but they decide to defer their breakup until the spring. As counterpoint we hear the other couple, Musetta and Marcello arguing.
The cast of this act is so real. It deals with the inevitable demise of all relationships in the test of time, an understanding we do not like to pursue. This is what happens after "for ever after" in many people's lives, especially today in our modern culture when most marriages are assumed to have only a limited time span--ideally enough time to allow the kids to reach puberty or University.
There is a painful psychological honesty about the the depiction of these breakups. At the beginning of the 20th Century many would still have been shocked at the ease at with which these couples became intimate without wedlock and then split up so easily, being horrified by such a moral chaos, but nowadays our cultural standards expect shorter commitments even within the conventions of marriage.
La Bohème presents a morality we now are all used to.
The heartrending last Act shows us the famous demise, back at the garret, of Mimi, after she has come to die there of her consumptive ailment. Many were quick to notice the similarity with Verdi's La Traviata of a generation earlier, but the class element has been removed, and the lovers are separated by the women's consumption in both cases.
In La Bohème we are confronted by the fragility of life and youth and beauty, and that last act is so beautifully, inexorably built up to Mimi's death. No matter how many times I turn on this last act accidentally on the radio, I can't turn it off, and must listen through the agonizing pauses before Rodolfo cries out "Mimi!" when he realizes she is dead. And it always makes me cry at least a little bit.
Michael Doleschell keeps mostly to non-fiction, and is deeply devoted to music and culture and never tires of history, and is fascinated by science and the scientific method [as long as they are well explained]. He broadcasts a program of Classical Music for 3 hours every Saturday afternoon from noon till 3 on the U of G's Radio Station: CFRU.