Go inside this production of La bohème with engaging articles, notes from the director, a complete plot synopsis, artist bios, and more.
The opera is set in Paris.
An attic in the Latin Quarter, Christmas Eve
Rodolfo and Marcello complain about the bitter cold. They need to light their stove: Marcello suggests using a chair, but Rodolfo offers the manuscript of the play he is writing. Colline enters and the remaining acts of the play are burned.
Schaunard enters with wood, food, and wine. He explains that an Englishman engaged him to play his violin to hasten the death of a parrot. The friends decide to go to eat in the Latin Quarter but are interrupted by Benoît, their landlord, who has come for the rent. They ply him with wine and Benoît boasts of his sexual prowess. The Bohemians pretend outrage at Benoît’s immorality and push him out.
Marcello, Colline, and Schaunard head to Café Momus, leaving Rodolfo behind to finish an article. There is a knock at the door. It is a young woman who asks for a light for her candle. She feels faint from climbing the stairs. As she is leaving, her candle flickers out again and she realizes that she has lost her key. Rodolfo’s candle also goes out and they search for her key in the moonlight. Rodolfo takes the young woman’s icy hand and tells her of his life as a poet. She tells him her name, Mimì, and describes her simple life as a flower embroiderer. Schaunard, Colline, and Marcello shout up to Rodolfo to hurry. Mimì asks if she may join them at the Café Momus. Rodolfo suggests they might stay in, but eventually they leave together singing of their love.
The Latin Quarter
Rodolfo and Mimì wander through the Christmas Eve crowds. Rodolfo introduces Mimì to his friends. When Mimì shows her new friends the bonnet Rodolfo has brought her, Marcello expresses cynicism about romance. As they propose a toast, Marcello’s ex-girlfriend Musetta appears, accompanied by Alcindoro, her rich admirer. Agitated at being ignored by Marcello, Musetta launches into a song – to provoke and seduce him. She complains of a painful foot and dispatches Alcindoro to buy new shoes. The bill for supper arrives, but the Bohemians have already spent their money. Musetta places their bill on Alcindoro’s plate. A marching band arrives, and the Bohemians leave with Musetta. Alcindoro returns and is presented with the bill.
Outside the Barrière d’Enfer
Workers arrive from out of town to enter the city. From inside a tavern comes the voice of Musetta. Mimì appears, ill and wracked with coughing. She asks for Marcello. He tells her that he and Musetta are now living at the inn and that Rodolfo turned up in the night. Mimì explains that Rodolfo’s jealousy is destroying their relationship and he wants to leave her. Marcello advises Mimì to go, but she hides nearby. Rodolfo comes out of the tavern and says he will break up with Mimì: her flirting has incensed him. Eventually, however, he reveals the real reason for their separation: she is so ill that his miserable poverty offers her nothing but the prospect of death. They hear Mimì crying and coughing. As Rodolfo rushes to her, Musetta’s laughter is heard and Marcello rushes into the tavern to see what she is doing. Mimì says farewell to Rodolfo, telling him that she will send a porter for her possessions. She proposes that he keep her bonnet as a memento of their love. Marcello and Musetta quarrel and separate. Rodolfo and Mimì decide to postpone their separation until the spring.
The attic, autumn
Marcello and Rodolfo taunt each other about their ex-lovers: Rodolfo has seen Musetta in a fine carriage and Marcello has seen Mimì dressed like a queen. They pretend not to miss their lovers, but then admit that they do. Schaunard and Colline arrive with bread and a herring and the four eat and amuse each other. Suddenly Musetta enters. She has brought Mimì, who is desperately ill. Musetta explains that she met her in the street and that Mimì begged to be taken to Rodolfo. Mimì rallies and greets the friends. Musetta instructs Marcello to sell her earrings to pay for medicine and a doctor. Colline leaves to pawn his overcoat. Alone with Rodolfo, Mimì expresses her boundless love for him. He shows her the bonnet and they reminisce about their first meeting. The others return with a muff and medicine, promising that a doctor will come. Mimì dies unnoticed while they are preparing her medicine. Colline arrives with money from the pawnbroker, but it is too late. This synopsis was originally printed in the program of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden
On behalf of everyone at Lyric, welcome to the opening production of our 2018/19 season! I’m tremendously excited about all the productions and special events we have planned. Our music director, Sir Andrew Davis, and I have worked intensively over the past several years to put together repertoire, casts, and production teams that will illuminate these great works for our audiences and bring them to life in thrilling new ways
After 46 years, a new vision of Giacomo Puccini’s universally beloved La bohème was long overdue on our stage. Lyric’s new coproduction packs a tremendous emotional punch. I’m delighted to welcome back to Lyric for two productions this season Richard Jones, an extraordinary director. I’ve always appreciated Richard’s ability to reach the emotional heart of whatever piece he directs. He does this in Bohème, exploring the music and text in remarkable detail.
Lyric’s marvelously youthful cast is made up of international stars. I'm so pleased that Maria Agresta, the irresistible Italian soprano who made her Lyric debut last season as Liù in Turandot, is returning to sing Mimì, her favorite role. Opposite her as Rodolfo, and making his Lyric debut, is Michael Fabiano, the American tenor who has very rapidly ascended to the front rank internationally. Our Musetta, Danielle de Niese, will no doubt captivate Lyric audiences, as she has done previously in Giulio Cesare, The Marriage of Figaro, and the world premiere of Bel Canto. Zachary Nelson (Marcello), heard at Lyric in Turandot and Das Rheingold, is one of the most promising American baritones of his generation, and Adrian Sâmpetrean (Colline), the Romanian bass, has proven deeply impressive in Lyric’s recent productions of Lucia di Lammermoor and I puritani.
It’s always a great event when a notable new conductor debuts at Lyric. Venezuela’s Domingo Hindoyan, who leads La bohème, has rapidly developed a sensational career in both the opera house and the concert hall. Last season, which included his Metropolitan Opera debut (L’elisir d’amore), he was also on the podium at the opera companies of Stuttgart, Monte Carlo, Dresden, and Berlin.
Lyric’s La bohème will make you fall in love with opera all over again.
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The scintillating American soprano Geraldine Farrar left a delightful anecdote regarding her debut at the Opéra de Monte Carlo in 1904. Farrar was onstage listening to the tenor of the evening deliver his aria, after which she was to begin her own. The elegant diva had initially been unimpressed by her colleague’s appearance, noting he was “was clad in shrieking checks, topped by a grey fedora, yellow gloves, and grasping a gold-headed cane.” But when he began to sing, the astonishing beauty of his voice so enraptured her she found herself transfixed. “I forgot all about the theater, the actions, everything,” Farrar recalled. “I sat there sobbing like a child. When my cue came, I did not hear it. The orchestra hesitated. My mother, who was in the wings, waved dramatically at me. I did not see her. I was having a beautiful, old-fashioned cry. Then the prompter arose from his seat and said 'Well, Miss Farrar, are you going to sing or not?'” The tenor in question was the blazing Italian supernova Enrico Caruso, and the opera was Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème.
Bohème is among the most admired of operas. It has been said that box-office health is a simple matter of “A, B, C” – Aida, Bohème, and Carmen. Bohème’s extraordinary popularity was unimaginable when the opera first appeared, however. Farrar’s reminiscence is a treasurable bit of theatrical nostalgia – but it also provides a telling glimpse into an operatic success that may never have occurred had it not been for the insight and determination of some very influential singers.
The second half of the 19th century was a time of formidable development in Italian opera. Giuseppe Verdi had boldly transcended the traditions of bel canto and the structures of opera from earlier in the century to endow the Italian lyric theater with a level of musical/ dramatic cohesion heretofore unknown. A gritty naturalism had also crept into the arts; initially through the paintings of Antonio Mancini and Francesco Paolo Michetti, as well as in literature as manifested by writer Giovanni Verga. In opera, Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana and Ruggiero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci had defined a new operatic genre, that of verismo, or realism.
It was into this heady milieu that Puccini made his early forays into composition. Puccini was born into a venerated musical family in Lucca; his father, grandfather, great-, and great-great-grandfather had all held the position of maestro di cappella at the Cattedrale di San Martino. After graduating from Milan Conservatory, he composed two operas, Le villi and Edgar, neither of which won success. Then in 1893, Puccini enjoyed a triumph with Manon Lescaut, which premiered at Turin’s Teatro Regio. No less an authority than George Bernard Shaw opined, “Puccini looks to me more like the heir of Verdi than any of his rivals.”
But as any artist can attest, coming up the second time after an acknowledged victory is one of the most dangerous moments in a career. The world is full of one-hit wonders. None of Leoncavallo’s subsequent operas achieved the success of Pagliacci (including his rival version of Bohème, which more or less died on the vine). Puccini knew he needed to proceed judiciously.
For inspiration, he turned to French poet Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de Bohème. Set in Paris, Murger’s episodic novella presented a series of colorful vignettes which related the escapades of a disparate group of young people living a romanticized Bohemian existence in the Latin Quarter. A stage adaptation by playwright Théodore Barrière had proven to be wildly successful. Giulio Ricordi, who commissioned the opera, assigned the team of Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa as librettists. As with the play, Illica and Giacosa took several liberties with Murger’s novel, combining the characters of Mimì and Francine, and tweaking matters to minimize similarities to Verdi’s La traviata. Puccini viscerally resonated with the material. “I lived that bohème,” he enthused, “when there wasn’t any thought stirring in my brain of seeking the theme of an opera.”
La bohème premiered at the Teatro Regio on February 1, 1896, conducted by the young Arturo Toscanini. The response was decidedly tepid. Such a flaccid reaction seems mind-boggling today. Perhaps Puccini’s music seemed a trifle dull, lacking both the pyrotechnical dazzle of the old repertory or the primal intensity of the new – particularly in the absence of a real aria d’urlo, a feature of verismo in which a character veers from lyricism and essentially begins to scream (though we have a suggestion of that from Rodolfo at Mimì’s death). In any case, this was not a matter of audience favor overriding critical dissent (Puccini would experience that later with Tosca). This time around, the audience wasn’t crazy about it either. Bohème’s ascension was to be fueled by its interpreters.
Chief among these was the great Australian diva Nellie Melba. Dame Nellie was a huge star, both at the Met and particularly at Covent Garden, where she ruled with an iron fist. She was also a soprano in search of new material. Melba had built her reputation in such florid Italian roles — most prominently Donizetti's Lucia — and was also celebrated as Gounod's Juliet and Marguerite. Audience tastes had changed, however. Melba’s outing as Nedda in Pagliacci was well received, but an ill-advised attempt at Brünnhilde in Wagner’s Siegfried was a disaster. “I have been a fool,” Melba told the press, in a rare moment of humility. In truth, Melba was anything but. She knew she needed to evolve, and that the excesses of verismo were a poor fit for her vocally and temperamentally. But Puccini’s Mimì was something else. Here was a modern role that would allow her to exploit her preternaturally beautiful timbre and exquisitely floated upper tones. Melba plunged into six weeks of study in the role with Puccini himself. The composer declared her an ideal Mimì (an assessment informed, no doubt, by his awareness of Melba’s considerable influence with management – Puccini was no fool, either).
Melba aggressively campaigned for Covent Garden to mount Bohème for her, which they did in 1899, despite their distaste for the “new and plebeian opera.” Her performance created a sensation. Soprano Mary Garden left a revealing account of Melba’s achievement, specifically the floated high C concluding “O soave fanciulla.” “The note came floating over the auditorium of Covent Garden; it left Melba's throat, it left Melba's body, it left everything, and came over like a star and passed us in our box, and went out into the infinite. I have never heard anything like it in my life, not from any other singer, ever. My God, how beautiful it was! That note of Melba's was just like a ball of light.” The Met capitulated as well, and Melba became their first Mimì in 1900, with the unusual caveat that she sing the mad scene from Lucia di Lammermoor following the opera, as a panacea for those who remained skeptical.
Then there was Caruso. If there ever was a perfect match of composer and voice, it was Giacomo Puccini and Enrico Caruso. Caruso’s extraordinary tenor instrument, with its ringing, honeyed sweetness on top and surprising complement of beef in the middle register, was ideally served by Puccini’s music. It could have been written for him, and Caruso knew it. His appearances as Rodolfo opposite Melba at Covent Garden in 1902 caused pandemonium. The press also had a field day with an extra-musical event that occurred. As legend has it, Caruso, a notorious practical joker, pressed a hot sausage into Melba’s hand as he sang “Che gelida manina” (“Your little hand is frozen”). It was a juicy little story, and it kept the singers – and Bohème – firmly in the public consciousness.
Generations of singers, especially Italian singers, have followed the Melba/ Caruso example since. Licia Albanese, Beniamino Gigli, the Renatas (Tebaldi and Scotto), Carlo Bergonzi, Franco Corelli, Mirella Freni, Luciano Pavarotti – all have had their careers in part measured by their assumptions of these roles, and to omit them from their repertoires would have been unthinkable.
And no wonder. Few operas command such an expansive appeal as La bohème. Its recognizable characters boast a human complexity that anyone who has ever been in love, survived a breakup, or has just had to get the rent paid, can relate to. Their passions are expressed through workaday objects familiar to us all – a candle here, an old topcoat there, a bonnet, a muff. This essential humanity has rendered the piece virtually indestructible, even in an era of high-concept Regietheater. It is also one of the most musically accessible of operas, for audiences and singers alike. The score requires little virtuosic display – Musetta delivers a staccato run or two, and Rodolfo has one high C (which even Caruso occasionally transposed down). While nothing beats an all-star Bohème, youthful enthusiasm goes some distance in this piece, and younger singers can make an enchanting effect in it.
Pop culture has reveled in Bohème. Musetta’s waltz is among the world’s most recognizable melodies, and has been covered by everyone from Della Reese to Vic Damone. Moviegoers sobbed along with Nicolas Cage and Cher when Moonstruck took us to Bohème at the Met. Joseph Papp produced a version starring pop sensation Linda Ronstadt and country king Gary Morris, and Broadway scored another hit with Rent, a reimagined rock version.
Bohème has even survived one of its own problematic dynamics reasonably well. In Mimì, Puccini created the first of what have regrettably been dubbed his “little women” – roles typified by the heroine of Madama Butterfly or Turandot’s Liù, who suffer and die for the love of a man. It’s a character convention that becomes ever more awkward. Yet Bohème’s women are the opera’s driving force; the men only react. Mimì is a surprisingly modern character for her time. She seeks independence, respect, and a voice. It is through Mimì’s strength of character that everyone else in the opera, male or female, learns to love, forgive, and become their better selves.
If audiences dismissed Bohème in 1896, they have lined up in droves since. La bohème is arguably the most beloved opera ever composed. It is the most frequently performed work at Lyric and the Met, where it has been performed more than 1,300 times. Even after innumerable hearings, the emotional lyricism of the score takes one’s breath away. From the first act’s exquisite pair of arias and emblematic love duet, we are gloriously transported through Musetta’s waltz, Mimi’s shattering farewell with the quartet that follows, and that ineffably affecting orchestral moment when the love theme is echoed in the final scene. The world now knows what Melba, Caruso, and a host of other singers have always known – and how grateful we should be for their wisdom.
Mark Thomas Ketterson is the Chicago correspondent for Opera News. He has also written for Playbill, the Chicago Tribune, Chicago magazine, and the publications of the Ravinia Festival, Houston Grand Opera, Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, and Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center.