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ClassicsOnline Home » PUCCINI, G.: Boheme (La) (Highlights) (Orgonasova, Welch, Gonzales, Previati, Humburg)
"Naxos is practically giving this set away, so I strongly advise you to go out and get it."
"For Orgonasova alone this set is an essential purchase."
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)
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
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