Sono andati?

The Music of Mimì and Rodolfo

George Fleeton

This is a redacted version of my article for the La Bohème opera programme at Lyric Opera’s production in the National Concert Hall Dublin on October 17, 18 and 20, 2015.

Paris is referenced in four of Puccini’s twelve operas: in act two of Manon Lescaut, in acts one and two of La Rondine, in Il Tabarro, but most vividly in La Bohème.

Puccini’s librettists Luigi Illica (Manon and Bohème) and Giuseppe Adami (Rondine and Tabarro) were largely responsible for this as they had adapted and reimagined previously published texts which Puccini then set to music.

Illica was an established Milanese playwright and his instinct for the striking stage picture, his sense of theatre and his careful attention to historical detail and local atmosphere inspired  Puccini and indeed other composers to write their best music.

Together with Giuseppe Giacosa, Illica then pursued a fraught but fruitful relationship with the composer and between them they went on to write Tosca and Madama Butterfly, two operas which, taken with Bohème, constitute what is arguably the greatest unofficial trittico of very fine operas anywhere  in the repertoire.

In the case of Bohème, Illica devised the incidental plot points and set out the dialogue in prose; Giacosa then put that text into polished verse and left it on Puccini’s desk at Torre del Lago.

In March 1894, Giulio Ricordi, of the great music publishing dynasty Casa Ricordi, announced Puccini’s contract for the opera which eventually had its prima at the Teatro Regio in Torino in February 1896, exactly three years to the day after Manon Lescaut had opened there.

I say eventually because Puccini had become, at age 36, the most vacillating and dilatory of composers, someone to whom even Ricordi’s deadlines meant little.

His problems with his writers showed he could be just as prickly as Verdi: cutting, extending, arguing over a phrase, changing his mind and thereby giving everyone a hard time.

But Ricordi was an excellent manager of men (in 1886 he had brought about the collaboration of Verdi and Boito) and it is immeasurably due to his patience with Puccini, and with the composer’s frequently uncongenial behaviour, that we today can continue to enjoy and to be impressed by Bohème, Tosca and Butterfly.

So how did they make a chance meeting between a seamstress and a poet, their short love affair, their separation and her death into dramatically convincing theatre, comprising four short scenes and lasting about one hour and fifty minutes?

Two reasons, in my view: if great opera, at the time of the belle époque, had not already peaked as  the exceptional artistic medium – before the cinema took on that role - which paints the human condition with astonishing power, reach and truth (thanks to Handel, Gluck and Mozart and those who had developed the art form throughout the 19th century), and if the three hundred year old traditions of opera lirica had not been acknowledged, embraced and nurtured by Ricordi and Puccini, then La Bohème would have gone nowhere, a mere footnote in the history of European music.

But, because it saw the light of day at that time and place, it is an opera which we now recognise to be as significantly different from all that went before it as had been the case with Mozart’s Nozze di Figaro in the previous century: two texts, you might say, sculpted for posterity, mould-breakers.

For Bohème, like Figaro, was equally innovative in that, at a stroke,  it deflated grandiose traditions in opera (including Verdi’s) and it helped to inaugurate and to consolidate a brand of verismo, albeit short-lived,  which immediately won near universal approval for its relatively sophisticated characters exploring the everyday nature of their dilemmas in unashamedly  romantic music, music which does not ramble on indeterminately but moves decisively forward from mood to mood, loaded with particular emotional passages, leitmotifs  which appear again and again.

It was a new style of chamber music, the music of friends, intimate, personal, with calculated choices of instrumentation such as lots of strings for Mimì and Rodolfo, woodwind for the other bohemians and brass and percussion for the Café Momus quadro.

Puccini’s music for Mimì and Rodolfo (yes it is heavily romanticised) is no longer a matter of phrases and sentences but rather whole paragraphs; the vocal lines are a pleasure to sing and to listen to; they are immediately embedded in the ear and live long afterwards in our personal musical memories.

When for instance Mimì, on her death-bed, asks Rodolfo if the others have gone - Sono andati? I was pretending to sleep because I wanted to be alone with you - she recalls, as in a cinematic flashback, the detail of their first meeting right down to intoning his Che gelida manina and, as she drifts off - Riposa è tranquilla … è spirata! – it is we the audience who are the first to catch  her last breath.

There are few closing scenes, anywhere in opera, to equal that of Mimì’s death in terms of its pathos and the power of melodramma, dramma per musica, to move us, the watchers in the dark, to unabashed compassion.

Indeed, on another approach, the opera’s continuing appeal may be too that these are six young people whom you might find in any great city at any period - in tonight’s production the 1950s - for there is no discernible discrepancy to my mind between the spirit of bohemian life drawn down by Illica and Giacosa from the 1830s, its operatic treatment by Puccini in the 1890s and a really good production today.

There are four distinct tableaux or quadri in Bohème and Puccini found fine musical balance between mock humour and romance in the first of these, vibrant colours in the second, pathos in extremis in the third and  a filigree balance of  farce and tragedy in the fourth.

The whole  works as a casually arranged series of impressions (pace Monet or Renoir) with no real plot holding it together, and it was the only time in any of his operas that Puccini took this less structured approach

There is practically no character development in the narrative: the bohemians live on the surface of their lives; only Mimì, a visitor to their social circle, is sketched in a little more fully: initially a frail, open, honest girl, a shy embroiderer of silk and satin flowers which ahimè non hanno odore.

Like Tosca and Cio-Cio-San we hear her (a timid knock on the door) before we see her and Rodolfo welcomes her in two splendid ariette linked by an arioso as love awakens and moves from utmost tenderness to passionate ecstasy in irresistible melodies – I have often described this as prosaic small talk dressed as gossamer poetry.

Her rejoinder is more finessed: a short account of a simple life, a mosaic of ariettes brought back to earth with her little apologetic parlando and by Rodolfo’s friends calling up to him from the street.

Mimì’s music is elegantly and delicately shaped, and these early conversations with Rodolfo, their happiest moments together, are infused with melodic richesses which define for us both the opera and our experience of it.

For a few moments she is transformed into a romantic but lonely girl dreaming of love’s spring while enjoying the camaraderie of new friends on Christmas Eve.

But it won’t work out; she is a high maintenance consumptive, who wanders a bit – a traviata like Violetta, another woman who strayed - and Rodolfo has no skills to cope with this, but they’ll try to stay together until the spring: would that the winter lasted for ever, she concludes, vorrei che eterno durasse il verno.

By the final scene, Puccini has achieved the perfect fusion of romanticism and realism, decorated with some memorable impressionist detail.

After four operas, he is dramatist and musician in equal measure, but that peak in his powers would not be sustained beyond Butterfly, because the six operas which followed that were uneven, often unconvincing and frankly at times uncomfortable to watch.

Of course most opera is patently unrealistic on stage; for example, my students used to remark that Rodolfo and his friends complain of the bitter cold in their garret - Mimì lives nearby but at least she has a view of the roofs and the sky:  guardo su i tetti e in cielo - yet they all end up dining outside the Café Momus a short time later; perhaps, sir, it was so crowded on the eve of Christmas that these latecomers had to be seated streetside?

We mustn’t go there; as we have learnt so well, from twelve decades of going to the movies, our passport to catharsis involves the willing suspension of our disbelief.

Out there in CD-land the best recordings by far are Toscanini’s 1946 RCA reading with Licia Albanese (who died last year, age 105), Beecham conducting Victoria de los Angeles in 1956 (EMI) and Serafin’s production  with Renata Tebaldi in 1958 (Decca).

For twenty years I used these recordings with students and noticed how this particular opera won over harder hearts than mine because the tensions between the lyrics and the music, the characters and the singers, were   tangible and tingling enough to reach out and touch us both emotionally and intellectually, and so they articulated our shared human condition in ways that only music and poetry can do.

I too have never forgotten my initial, by-pure-chance encounter with La Bohème.

It was on my first trip abroad, from a small hill farm - and a large boarding school - in Co. Antrim to the Opéra Comique (the Salle Favart, which I later frequented when I went to live in France).

I’d had a good music education and a very small place in the sun as a treble soloist and G&S soprano, but that couple of hours of Puccini in Paris permanently ruptured the fabric of any normality in my life up to that point.

The date was April 1962, and it is doubly memorable in that I also heard a seriously ill Édith Piaf, a true enfant de bohème, singing live at L’Olympia de Paris, and that was about a year before she died.