The Three Bohemes
By FRANK BEHRENS
Art Times October 2005
Those familiar Bohemians—(to
give their Italian names) Rudolpho, Marcello, Musetta, Mimi, and their
friends—probably were once very live people, going precariously
from day to day and having only boundless optimism and hearty interrelations
to sustain them. Around 1847, Henry Murger published a series of magazine
articles, really sketches, concerning the life of the Paris Bohemians.
These became a play and later were incorporated in a book titled “Scenes
de la Vie de Boheme.”
In the same way
that “East Enders” finally took a sympathetic look at the
citizens of that much maligned section of London and showed them to
be interesting human beings, Murger’s stories did the same for
Paris’s colony of starving artists, poets, philosophers, musicians,
flower girls, and all the rest.
This is, of course,
a candy shop for writers of opera libretti; and one Leoncavallo did
indeed write a libretto in which Marcello and Musetta are the main characters,
with Rudolpho and Mimi as secondary characters. It is said that Leoncavallo
offered his version to Puccini, who thought it could not be very good
or its author would have set it to his own music. Well, Leoncavallo
did just that.
But Puccini was
also interested in the Murger work as the source of a comic-tragic opera
and discussed it with his publisher, the wily Giulio Ricordi. There
is a story, difficult to confirm, that Ricordi, Puccini and Leoncavallo
were having a drink at some café when the latter mentioned his
intentions to go ahead with his “La Boheme.” Ricordi said
his firm would have no interest in a work on that subject, knowing full
well that he had already settled on Puccini’s version. Whatever
happened that day, it is a fact that the two composers were on the worst
of terms afterwards and that Puccini’s “La Boheme”
premiered the year before Leoncavallo’s.
Going by the assumption
that my readers are already familiar with the plot of the Puccini work,
I think it best to concentrate on Leoncavallo’s treatment.
To start, a first
hearing might prove disappointing. While the score is full of wonderful
music in the orchestra (thank you yet again, Wagner), there are few
of the vocal lines that one will recall once the curtain goes down—or
the CD ends. Leoncavallo was following the path of the verismo school
in which the vocal lines follow normal speech patterns and people do
not burst into arias or participate in duets in the way they do in (say)
the Puccini work. So when Leoncavallo wants a song from Musetta, someone
must ask her to sing one. There is also a lot of fun when the men take
on a spoof of Rossini’s music and when Marcello sings a snatch
The order of the
incidents taken from the Murger chapters is like this. In Act I, we
meet all the main characters on Christmas Eve at the Café Momus,
where the owner is insisting he be paid. After they order a large meal,
they cannot indeed pay anything; but a stranger suddenly appears and
offers to pay. Too proud to accept, Schaunard wagers the bill on a game
of billiards with the man and easily wins.
Act II is out
in the courtyard of the tenement in which the friends live. Abandoned
by her rich lover, Musetta is out on the street; but a party they had
planned is given anyway, to the great annoyance of the other tenants.
Mimi realizes that one cannot live on love alone (a theme of this opera)
and goes off with a rich gentleman, leaving her Rudopho to do without.
Act III begins
where Puccini’s Act I begins, in the attic. There is a total change
in mood. Musetta is leaving
Marcello and Mimi returns, begging to be taken back. Marcello, unlike
Puccini’s painter, thinks Mimi has turned Musetta against him,
convinces Rudolpho to reject Mimi, and the two women leave in tears.
Act IV is practically
the same as in Puccini’s work. A year has passed. Mimi, close
to death, is brought back by Musetta. Her last words, and the last in
the opera, are “Natale, Natale” (“Christmas, Christmas”),
bringing us back neatly and sadly to the opening scene of the work.
How I wish some company would revive this
work onto video to give us all a chance to enjoy it. In the meanwhile,
there are one or two recordings on CD that might still be available.
And, of course, one can always read the Murger novel and gain a good
deal of insight into how different librettists treat the same source.