The History of Puccini’s La Bohème
Reproduced from The Metropolitan Opera's Education Guide for educational purposes only from The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, Volume One, edited by Stanley Sadie.
Puccini’s intention to base an opera on Murger’s picaresque novel appears to date from the winter of 1892–3, shortly before the première of Manon Lescaut. Almost at once it involved him in a controversy in print with Leoncavallo, who in the columns of his publisher’s periodical Il secolo (20 March 1893) claimed precedence in the subject, maintaining that he had already approached the artists whom he had in mind and that Puccini knew this perfectly well. Puccini rebutted the accusation in a letter (dated the following day) to Il corriere della sera and at the same time welcomed the prospect of competing with his rival and allowing the public to judge the winner.
Scènes de la vie de bohème existed both as a novel, originally published in serial form, and as a play written in collaboration with Théodore Parrière. There were good reasons why neither Puccini nor Leoncavallo should have availed themselves of the latter, whose plot in places runs uncomfortably close to that of La traviata (Mimì is persuaded to leave Rodolfo by her lover’s wealthy uncle, who uses the same arguments as Verdi’s Germont). As the novel was in the public domain Ricordi’s attempt to secure exclusive rights to it on Puccini’s behalf were unsuccessful. Work proceeded slowly, partly because Puccini had not yet definitely renounced his idea of an opera based on Giovanni Verga’s La lupa and partly because he spent much of the next two years travelling abroad to supervise performances of Manon Lescaut in various European cities. By June 1893 Illica had already completed a prose scenario of which Giacosa, who was given the task of putting it into verse, entirely approved. Here the drama was articulated in four acts and five scenes: the Bohemians’ garret and the Café Momus (Act 1), the Barrière d’Enfer (Act 2), the courtyard of Musetta’s house (Act 3) and Mimì’s death in the garret (Act 4). Giacosa completed the versification by the end of June and submitted it to Puccini and Ricordi, who felt sufficiently confident to announce in the columns of the Gazzetta musicale di Milano that the libretto was ready for setting to music. He was premature. Giacosa was required to revise the courtyard and the Barrière scenes, a labour [sic] which he found so uncongenial that in 8 October he offered – not for the last time – to withdraw from the project; however, he was persuaded by Ricordi to remain.
At a conference with his publisher and the librettists during the winter of 1893–4, Puccini insisted on jettisoning the courtyard scene and with it Mimì’s desertion of Rodolfo for a rich ‘Viscontino’ only to return to the poet in the final act. The librettists strongly objected, but Illica finally proposed a solution whereby the last act, instead of opening with Mimì already on her deathbed as originally planned, would begin with a scene for the four Bohemians similar to that of Act 1, while Mimì’s absence would be the subject of an aria by Rodolfo. The aria became a duet, but otherwise Illica’s scheme was adopted in all essentials. Other revisions outlined by Illica and filled out by Giacosa during 1894 included the ‘two self-descriptions of Rodolfo and Mimì’ in Act 1 and their duet ‘O soave fanciulla’. At the time the Café Momus scene was still envisaged as a ‘concertato finale’ to Act 1; nor is it clear precisely when it was made into a separate act. At one point Illica wished to eliminate it altogether, but Puccini stoutly defended the Latin quarter ‘the way I described it … with Musetta’s scene which I invented’. His own doubts, curiously, concerned the Barrière d’Enfer, a scene that owes nothing to Murger and which the composer felt gave insufficient scope for musical development. His suggestion that they replace it with another episode from the novel was curtly refused by Illica.
Having finally decided to abandon La lupa in the summer of 1894 Puccini began the composition of La bohème. From then on the librettists’ work consisted mostly of elimination, extending even to details whose inclusion Puccini had originally insisted, such as a drinking song and a diatribe against women, both allocated to Schaunard. The score was finished on 10 December 1895.
Since La Scala was now under the management of published Edoardo Sonzogno, who made a point of excluding all Ricordi scores from the repertory, the première was fixed for the Teatro Regio, Turin (where Manon Lescaut had received its première in 1893). The principals were Cesira Ferrani (Mimì), Camilla Pasini (Musetta), Evan Gorga (Rodolfo), Michele Mazzini (Colline) and Antonio Pini-Corsi (Schaunard); the conductor 9 was Toscanini. The public response was mixed: favourable [sic] to Acts 1 and 4, less so to the others. Most of the critics saw in the opera a falling-off from Manon Lescaut in the direction of triviality. But nothing could stop its rapid circulation. A performance at the Teatro Argentina, Rome, under Edoardo Mascheroni (23 February) introduced Rosina Storchio as Musetta, a role in which she later excelled. A revival at the Politeama Garibaldi, Palermo (24 April) under Leopoldo Mugnone included for the first time the Act 2 episode where Mimì shows off her bonnet. On this occasion Rodolfo and Mimì were played by Edoardo Garbin and Adeline Stehle (the original young lovers of Verdi’s Falstaff), who did much to make La bohème popular in southern Italy in the years that followed. Outside Italy most premières of La bohème were given in smaller theatres and in the vernacular of the country. In Paris it was first given in 1898 by the Opéra-Comique, as La vie de bohème, and achieved its 1000th performance there in 1951. After a performance at Covent Garden by the visiting Carl Rosa company in 1897 La bohème first established itself in the repertory of the Royal Italian Opera on 1 July 1899 with a cast that included Nellie Melba (Mimì), Zélie de Lussan (Musetta), Alessandro Bonci (Rodolfo), Mario Ancona (Marcello) and Marcel Journet (Colline). From them on its fortunes in Britain and America were largely associated with Melba, who was partnered among others, by Fernando de Lucia, John McCormack, Giovanni Martinelli and, most memorably of all, Enrico Caruso. Today La bohème remains, with Tosca and Madama Butterfly, one of the central pillars of the Italian repertory.