The Scandals of La Bohème
Time erodes edges. Looking back at the nineteenth century from our twenty-first-century vantage, the social values can often seem prim: Picture limply held handkerchiefs or averted glances from the church pew. Yet the 1800s were a time of remarkable political upheaval, social change, and artistic flourishing, and the biographies of those who defied society’s mores were far from puritanical. Some would be considered scandalous even by today’s standards.
Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème, which premiered in 1896 in Turin, Italy, celebrates just that sort of defiance: its depiction of artists, musicians, and poets in Paris’s Latin Quarter honors their disdain for superficial social restrictions amid their pursuit of something grander. Or sometimes, that disdain has nothing to do with anything grand. In the first act, our heroes and heroines get their landlord, Benoît, drunk, encourage him to confess his marital infidelities, act shocked, and then kick him out—without actually giving him the rent money. But their indignation is all artifice, a way of avoiding paying the rent.
It’s not surprising that Puccini (left) would want to write an opera about these Latin Quarter denizens. After all, he was himself a frequent defier of social protocol, to such an extent that he was at the center of a few scandals during his lifetime. The first quarter-century of his life was quiet, spent in the Tuscan town of Lucca and then Milan studying music, his family’s profession. But in 1884, he ran off with a married woman, Elvira Gemignani. They weren’t able to wed until about two decades years later, after her husband died; the husband may have been killed by the jealous husband of one of his own multiple lovers. Giacomo and Elvira lived in the town of Torre del Lago, on Tuscany’s Lake Massaciuccoli. Puccini himself was not a faithful partner.
A tragic episode from the Puccini marriage took place in 1908–1909, when Puccini was beginning work on his America-set opera La Fanciulla del West. The story—some confirmed, some alleged—goes that a servant at the house, Doria Manfredi, caught Puccini’s married stepdaughter, Fosca, in bed with Fanciulla librettist Guelfo Civinini. To undermine Doria’s credibility, Fosca accused her of having an affair with Puccini. Elvira became jealous and threatened to kill Doria, who committed suicide soon after by poisoning herself. Her family brought charges of calumny and persecution against Elvira, who was found guilty, though never imprisoned. Elvira had it wrong: it was probably Doria’s cousin, Giulia, with whom Puccini was having the affair. (The 2008 Italian film Puccini e la fanciulla [Puccini and the Girl] is based on these events; it was directed by Paolo Benvenuti, whose research uncovered many of the details.)
Back to Bohème: Puccini’s grand ode to the free spirit was itself a scandal-laden affair in the lead-up to its premiere. The scandal this time? Betrayal. Composer and librettist Ruggio Leoncavallo (right)—best, or only, known today for his opera Pagliacci, the one about the sad clown—claimed to have reached out to Puccini to offer a libretto he was working on, based on the stories in Scènes de la vie de bohème, by French writer Henri Murger. (Of those stories, per Dyana Neal at WBJC, “Some art does get created in Bohemia, but Rodolphe and his friends spend more time pursuing fine food, wine, and sex than calling upon the Muses.”) Puccini expressed no interest in Leoncavallo’s libretto. It was a shock to Leoncavallo, then, to soon discover that Puccini was working on his own Bohème. The two composers embarked on a public feud, making proclamations in the newspaper about who had the idea first. After Leoncavallo’s complaint, Puccini wrote dryly “It is too late for me to be as courteous to him as a friend and musician as I would like.”
The librettist Puccini ended up going with was Luigi Illica, who would later also work with Puccini on Tosca and Madame Butterfly. Illica’s bit of scandal revolved around his missing right ear. He lost it in a duel, some say over a woman.
Puccini’s Bohème ultimately debuted to a lukewarm response, whereas Leoncavallo’s Bohème premiered to critical acclaim a year later. Leoncavallo’s version is rarely performed today. Puccini’s, on the other hand, was the fourth most produced opera in 2015/2016, the latest year for which Operabase has statistics online. Puccini himself was the third most performed opera composer from the 2011/2012 to the 2015/2016 opera seasons, after Verdi and Mozart. Scroll down the list a while, and you’ll find Leoncavallo at number 19.
All the sensational stories matter little compared to the work that was created. Bohème was of its time—a time of upheaval, because it was a time when social customs were being reconsidered and revised—but it is, now, a timeless work of art. And actually, it’s a peculiarly topical one as well. Just like the Bohemians, we are contending with rapid societal change. Perhaps we too are living la vie bohème.
Written by Grace Parazzoli
Experience OPERA San Antonio’s La Bohème at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts in the H-E-B Performance Hall on May 17th and 19th. To purchase tickets, CLICK HERE or call the Box Office at (210) 223-8624.