Event: Puccini’s La Bohème
Date: February 24, 2018, 12:30 pm
Run Time: 2 hours 55 minutes
Ticket Info: Tickets available at the door and online

Tickets for La Bohèmeper adult • $22.00 online

Tickets for La Bohèmeper student • $11.00 online


Paris, the 1830s. In their Latin Quarter garret, the near-destitute artist Marcello and poet Rodolfo try to keep warm on Christmas Eve by feeding the stove with pages from Rodolfo’s latest drama. They are soon joined by their roommates—Colline, a philosopher, and Schaunard, a musician, who brings food, fuel, and funds he has collected from an eccentric student. While they celebrate their unexpected fortune, the landlord, Benoit, comes to collect the rent. After making the older man drunk, they urge him to tell of his flirtations. When he does, they throw him out in mock indignation at his infidelity to his wife. As his friends depart to celebrate at the Café Momus, Rodolfo remains behind to finish an article but promises to join them later. There is another knock at the door—the visitor is Mimì, a pretty neighbor, whose candle has gone out on the stairway. As she enters the room she suddenly feels faint. Rodolfo gives her a sip of wine, then helps her to the door and relights her candle. Mimì realizes she lost her key when she fainted, and as the two search for it, both candles are blown out. Rodolfo finds the key and slips it into his pocket. In the moonlight, he takes Mimì’s hand and tells her about his dreams. She recounts her life alone in a lofty garret, embroidering flowers and waiting for the spring. Rodolfo’s friends are heard outside, calling him to join them. He responds that he is not alone and will be along shortly. Happy to have found each other, Mimì and Rodolfo leave, arm in arm, for the café.

Amid the shouts of street hawkers near the Café Momus, Rodolfo buys Mimì a bonnet and introduces her to his friends. They all sit down and order supper. The toy vendor Parpignol passes by, besieged by children. Marcello’s former sweetheart, Musetta, makes a noisy entrance on the arm of the elderly but wealthy Alcindoro. The ensuing tumult reaches its peak when, trying to gain Marcello’s attention, she loudly sings the praises of her own popularity. Sending Alcindoro off on a pretext, she finally falls into Marcello’s arms. Soldiers march by the café, and as the bohemians fall in behind, the returning Alcindoro is presented with the check.

At dawn on the snowy outskirts of Paris, a customs official admits farm women to the city. Guests are heard drinking and singing within a tavern. Mimì arrives, searching for Marcello. When the painter appears, she tells him of her distress over Rodolfo’s incessant jealousy. She says she believes it is best that they part. Rodolfo, who has been asleep in the tavern, comes outside. Mimì hides nearby, though Marcello thinks she has left. Rodolfo tells his friend that he wants to separate from Mimì, blaming her flirtatiousness. Pressed for the real reason, he breaks down, saying that her coughing can only grow worse in the poverty they share. Overcome with emotion, Mimì comes forward to say goodbye to her lover. Marcello runs back into the tavern upon hearing Musetta’s laughter. While Mimì and Rodolfo recall past happiness, Marcello returns with Musetta, quarreling about her flirting with a customer. They hurl insults at each other and part, but Mimì and Rodolfo decide to remain together until spring.

Months later in the garret, Rodolfo and Marcello, now separated from their girlfriends, reflect on their loneliness. Colline and Schaunard bring a meager meal. To lighten their spirits the four stage a dance, which turns into a mock duel. At the height of the hilarity Musetta bursts in with news that Mimì is outside, too weak to come upstairs. As Rodolfo runs to her aid, Musetta relates how Mimì begged to be taken to Rodolfo to die. She is made as comfortable as possible, while Musetta asks Marcello to sell her earrings for medicine and Colline goes off to pawn his overcoat. Left alone, Mimì and Rodolfo recall their meeting and their first happy days, but she is seized with violent coughing. When the others return, Musetta gives Mimì a muff to warm her hands and prays for her life. Mimì slowly drifts into unconsciousness. Schaunard realizes that she is dead, and Rodolfo is left desperate.

Notes by Zeke Hecker

For the subject of La Bohème Puccini chose the memoir (scarcely disguised as fiction) Scenes of Bohemian Life by the French writer Henri Murger. As students, Puccini and his roommate Pietro Mascagni (composer of Cavalleria Rusticana) had shared experiences very much like those of Murger’s young, impoverished Parisian artists. It turned out that Ruggero Leoncavallo (composer of I Pagliacci) was planning an opera on the same source. Puccini had a habit of pouncing on other composers‘ projects. The two argued, but both went ahead with their plans, agreeing to let the public decide. Puccini’s Bohème had its premiere in 1896, Leoncavallo’s a couple of years later. The public has decided. Puccini’s Bohème is probably the most popular opera in the world.

Puccini might well have used Murger’s title in full. His libretto, crafted by his regular collaborators Illica and Giacosa, is a dizzying kaleidoscope of incident, character, and banter. The score refers not to four acts, but four “pictures.” While the first two form a connected sequence, the latter two are separated from those and from each other by long stretches of time, during which important events have occurred; the libretto refers to them obliquely. There are few set pieces: two monologues and a love duet when Mimi and Rodolfo meet, Musetta’s waltz, Colline’s one-minute serenade to his coat. Instead of arias and recitatives, Puccini gives us mostly continuous arioso, dialogue moving at a swift conversational pace; it’s hard for an audience to keep up. You may think you know the plot thoroughly, but could you pass a quiz on it?   

Critics habitually flip their noses at La Bohème. Joseph Kerman’s Opera as Drama sniffed at its “somewhat chlorotic charm.” Why, then, is it so popular? For one thing, the story is always contemporary, as Jonathan Larson, author of the rock musical Rent, demonstrated when he shifted it to Lower Manhattan in the era of AIDS. The characters are endearing. The energy level is high, with plenty of comedy, romantic love interest, and ultimately tragedy (or, if you prefer, melodrama). If that were all, then we’d be satisfied with Leoncavallo. Puccini gives us more: glorious tunes, brilliant orchestration, musical pacing and structure that bind together the divergent elements of the story. You could love La Bohème even if you had no idea what was going on.