Puccini’s Masterpiece “La Boheme”

Student of heredity find in the cse of Giacomo Puccini a case comparable in musical history with the Bach family, the Wesley family, the Couperin family, the Strauss family and others of continuous musical lineage. The founder of the dynasty ws Giacomo Puccini (1712-1781), who in his day was a distinguished organist and composer of sacred music. His son, Antonio Puccini (1747-1832), was likewise an organist and composer of sacred music; his osn Domenico (1771-1815) essayed operatic and symphonic works, as well as church compositions; his son Michele (1813-1864) was an able teacher and composer in Lucca, where Giacomo was born December 23, 1858.

Puccini, as a boy, showed little talent or inclination for music; but his mother was very anxious that her son should carry on the family traditions, and he was accordingly sent to the local institute, where he became a pupil of Angeloni, who was a former pupil of Michele Puccini.

The youth started his career as an organist in 1875. His first stage work, Juno, a cantata, failed to win a prize in the competition in which it was submitted. Witnessing a performance of Aida, he was inspired to become a dramatic composer. He then spent three years at the Milan Conservatorio under Bazzini and Ponchielli.

His first opera was Le Villi, produced in 1884 (fair success), his second was Edgar (1889), and moderately successful. Manon Lescaut (1893) was an unquestioned triumph, and La Boheme (1896) convinced all the critics that Italy had a new and great master. This was substantiated by the production of all of his subsequent works; Madam Butterfly (1904), Girl of the Golden West (1910), La rondine (1917), Il Tabarro, Suor Angelica, Gianni Schicche (1918).

One distinctive characteristic of Puccini is his very close bond to the character of the text of the work he is setting to music. Once the work is done the words and the music seem indissoluble, and many of his most superb effects clearly follow the inspirational values in the drama.

Despite a long series of successes, there are many who regard La Boheme as Puccini’s finest score. The plaintive story of the poet Rudolph, the painter Marcel, the philosopher Colline and the musician Schaunard all flirting cheerfully with hunger and poverty for the sake of art – the frail little Mimi, the petulant Musetta, and fascinating life of the Latin Quarter, all brought to new life from the pages of Henri Murger’s La Vie de Boheme, make this work one of the most romantic and the most entrancing in all modern opera.

Its first performance took place in the Teatro Reggio, at Turin, in 1896. It was first given in America in San Francisco, in 1898, but was not undertaken by the Metropolitan in New York until 1901.

H.E. Krebbiel has criticised the work for a lack of humor in its lighter scenes, but Puccini’s intent is so obviously serious and earnest that this is not felt by those who take this masterpiece seriously. On the other hand, Streatfield, the English critic, insists that Puccini has caught the fanciful grace of Mergers’ style and has knit the text and the music in remarkable fashion.

Dramatists have criticised the work for a lack of continuous plot, but Puccini has succeeded in giving us four scenes from the Bohemian life of Paris, all dealing with the same individuals, which perhaps make one of the most artistic pieces of musical dramatic work of its kind. Puccini’s skilled librettists, Giacosa and Illica, both expert playwrights, have done a really remarkable piece of stage work in putting together this work.

Puccini is evidently a very rapid worker. The manuscripts of his scores look to the uninitiated like so many scratches and scrawls. He writes and rewrites and rewrites until his manuscript is hardly legible to any but an expert. Few composers have the ability to write such intensely impassioned passages as Puccini – one of the finest of which is the wonderful love duet at the end of act I of La Boheme.

Puccini in his youth was the recipient of a pension from Queen Marguerita of Italy. The enormous returns from his works, the great honor he has brought his native land and the opportunities he has given to innumerable compatriots certainly point to this as a most wise investment.

The Story of “La Boheme”

The plot of the opera is an adaptation of Murger’s La Vie de la Boheme. It pictures life in the Students’ Quarter of Paris in 1830.

Act I: opens with a lively scene in the lodging of the four “Bohemians” – Rudolph, a poet: Marcel, a painter: Colline, a philosopher, and Schaunard, a musician – who make life gay in spite of hunger. The others leave Rudolph at his writing. A timid knock announces the entrance of Mimi, a destitute embroidery girl, from a room above, who has come to borrow a light for her candle. In the exchange of the stories of their lives sympathy blossoms into love.

Act II: is the famous scene on the terrace of the Cafe Momus, with an artists’ carnival in progress. The “Bohemians”, with Mimi, celebrate at a table, when Musetta, a flame of Marcel’s former days, enters with her latest victim, the antique and amorous Alcindoro. Drawing the attention of Marcel, she enters into the revelry, finally making her exit on the shoulders of her friends, leaving the duped Alcindooro to pay the bills.

Act III: the “Gates of Paris” scene, opens in s snow at dawn. Mimi asks the gatekeeper for Marcel, who has fallen from “landscapes” to painting tavern signs. Mercel enters, and the beautiful duet, Mimi! Io son! follows. Marcel leaves to seek Rudolph. Mimi conceals herself, only to have him enter and sing of her inconstancy. Disclosing herself, she sings the pathetic Farewell, May You Be Happy. In this she is joined by Rudolph, while later Musetta and Marcel enter quarreling, thus completing the well-known “Quartet” with which the act closes.

Act IV: begins with Marcel and Rudolph pretending work, but really dreaming of their sweethearts. At the entrance of Schaunard and Colline they brighten up and jollify over their supper. Musetta interrupts the festivities by entering to say that Mimi, deserted by Alicandoro, has returned to die. Placed on Rudolph’s bed, Mimi expires and the curtain descends on Rudolph’s despairing cry, “Mimi! Mimi!”.