Histoire d'amour/ Storia d'amore

Mimì  grisette   Rodolfo   bohémien

- Histoire d’amour sans lendemain -

- Storia d’amore senza domani -

This essay is dedicated to Simonetta Puccini who died in December 2017 aged 88. It first appeared in the programme for Lyric Opera’s production of La Bohème in National Concert Hall Dublin on 23, 24 & 26 February 2019.

George Fleeton

THERE is a passage in Somerset Maugham’s first major novel  Of Human Bondage (George H. Doran Co, 1915)  where the young protagonist Philip Carey is reading Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de bohème (Calmann-Lévy, 1851):

“Fascinating, ill-written, absurd … he fell at once under its spell. His soul danced with joy at that picture of starvation which is so good-humoured, of squalor which is so picturesque, of sordid love which is so romantic, of pathos which is so moving. Rodolphe and Mimi, Musette and Schaunard!  They wander through the grey streets of the Latin Quarter, finding refuge now in one attic, now in another, in their quaint costumes of Louis-Philippe, with their tears and their smiles, happy-go-lucky and reckless. Who can resist them?  Grisettes, bohémiens. It is only when you return to the book with a sounder judgment that you find how gross their pleasures were, how vulgar their minds; and you feel the utter worthlessness, as artists and as human beings, of that gay procession. Philip was enraptured” (chapter xxxiii).

IN March 1893 Giacomo Puccini’s librettists Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica filleted Murger’s text and offered it to the composer for what became his fourth opera La Bohème (Torino, February 1896, conducted by 28 year old Arturo Toscanini).

WHERE Illica adapted plot, character and dialogue Giacosa, a well-established poet and playwright, prepared and polished the verses which Puccini then set to music; as a team these three would be similarly responsible for Tosca (1900) and Madama Butterfly (1904); indeed it was sorting out the earlier Manon Lescaut (1893) which had originally brought them together.

REFERRED to as ‘the holy trinity’ by Puccini, they were friends, each one bohemian in outlook; and although Puccini was never satisfied with nor grateful for anything his two librettists produced they, even when sometimes driven to despair by his dithering and fault-finding, remained faithful to his genius, while Giulio Ricordi, their publisher, tried to keep the peace.

DIFFICULT to work with and diffident and stubborn, Puccini for instance already had in mind the music for Musetta’s waltz song Quando me’n vo soletta per la via la gente sosta e mira before he received the libretto for the quadro secondo; it had started out as a piano piece, a piccolo valzer which he had written two years earlier for the launch of the battleship ‘Re Umberto’ in Genova; shades there of Rossini who used to borrow his own music from one opera to the next.

IN the first edition of the Bohème score, published by Ricordi, it is interesting that the iconic title page by Adolfo Hohenstein avoids suggesting the new opera’s tragic outcome (that amour sans lendemain); instead the bohemians are humorously sketched against a backdrop of the bustle of Christmas Eve in Paris and we note that the opera is in quattro quadri (four scenes or tableaux) not acts.

ON the first occasion I visited the  lakeside Villa Museo Puccini at Torre del Lago just north of Pisa several  years ago, with his granddaughter the late Simonetta as my guide, standing beside her grandfather’s piano (a black August Förster upright as I recall) she said to me:

 “Sitting here, chain-smoking, late at night, he’d read a verse or two of Giacosa’s text and a certain combination of notes would present itself to him; and he didn’t know why such and such words would call forth in him such and such notes, as the melody began to take shape; they just did.”

NOW that comment may not seem musicologically very profound but on subsequent visits with my students we stood in that room (where Puccini admitted weeping, at midnight on 10 December 1895, as he wrote Mimì’s death scene) and we listened to Sono andati..?  and we were profoundly moved.

HERE is a much more incisive comment on Puccini’s music and its élégance naturelle :

Son emploi du leitmotiv, très suggestif, crée de véritables thèmes-atmosphères plantant un décor soigneusement documenté. La voix a toujours la suprématie, dotée de lignes mélodiques faciles à retenir et soutenue par une orchestration complexe, haute en couleur, qui concentre tout le tragique de l’oeuvre.’  (L’opéra, Benardeau/Pineau, Éditions Nathan, p 34, 2000). ¹

IN La Bohème Puccini peoples the stage with a new breed of protagonist, never encountered for example in Verdi: youthful intellectuals, in a verismo or contemporary setting, living in poverty, made sad or happy by commonplace problems and delights: ‘I had a feeling only for small things and did not want to concern myself with anything else,’ said Puccini at the time.

HIS is a small art which focuses as does great cinema on minor incidents and details: trying to light a fire in the stove, getting out of paying the rent, the appearance of Parpignol a toy vendor to complete  the hustle and bustle at the Caffè Momus ², Mimì’s attachment to her cuffietta rosa/pinkbonnet, Musetta’s earrings and Colline’s decision to pawn his overcoat (Vecchia zimarra) to buy Mimì medicine.

IN an opera which is short of plot, love intrigues and villains, in a narrative with little potential, the blows of fate come in the form of sickness, estrangement and decline all anticipated, underlined and reprised in the music.

MIMÌ stands somewhat apart from the others, she is not a bohémienne; docile and compliant she is the gentlest of Puccini’s little women in love, his piccole donne innamorate.

SHE is consumptive, makes no heroically tragic gestures like Cio-Cio-San or Liù; indeed she does nothing out of the ordinary and her fate is acted out before our engaged eyes and ears in three simple phases: she loves, she suffers and she dies.

TO give this central predicament credible theatrical impact each quadro has distinctive musical signatures:

the opera starts as a comedy, with the manipulation of Benoît the landlord, and then majors on the first experience of love;

this is followed by the distractions of  capricious Musetta and her flirting and deception of an aging and infatuated Alcindoro de Mitonneaux;

then the gear shifts in anticipation of the tragic, the quadro terzo opening and closing with an abrupt jolting chord; this is a more precise and concise tableau, cinematic in its structure and in its montages, an intimate chamber piece, in which Puccini somewhat unconventionally sets the climactic music of the two couples, each relationship fracturing, in parallel so that it never develops into a conventional quartetto;

finally as audience we are the first to notice when Mimì  slips way while Musetta is preparing some medicine, and saying her prayers; it is Schaunard, standing closest to the makeshift bed, who realises what we have just witnessed and whispers to Marcello è spirata!

PUCCINI was the last significant Italian composer in an unbroken line which began with Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo in 1607 and ended with Puccini’s death in November 1924 and his twelfth and last opera Turandot, whose final act he was too ill to complete.

IT was eventually seen and heard at La Scala in April 1926, over thirty years after Bohème and it was also conducted by Toscanini.

PUCCINI had a great gift for perfumed melodies and was especially compassionate towards his little women in love (as was Mozart before him) whose hearts and souls he effectively explored in memorable compositions.

HIS instincts for the artificial theatrics of the stage were supreme, every stage action or plot point being signalled musically; for instance Mimì, Tosca and Cio-Cio-San are each heard off stage moments before we see them.

HE had a precise, innate perspective in matters of stagecraft, stage drama and how our encounter with theatre works best; he wrote for the audience, taking account of its concentration span: e.g. quadro terzo lasts just 25 minutes, yet it is the keystone to the overarching narrative.

AND his penchant for the exotic is totally absent from Bohème; that came to the fore later: Cio-Cio-San, Suzuki, Turandot and Liù are Asian women, while Minnie is from California.

HIS Irish friend from Castlebar Margherita Sheridan made her operatic début as Mimì at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome in February 1918, replacing Alice Zepelli at four days' notice and coached by the opera house direttrice Emma Carelli.

THAT month Sheridan  sang the role six times to full houses which included Il Re Vittorio Emanuele and Guglielmo Marconi. Her last Mimì was a single performance in Covent Garden in June 1929, exactly a year before her retirement.

DURING her most active period she featured in eleven other operas including Puccini's Manon Lescaut, Madama Butterfly, Gianni Schicchi and Turandot (as Liù).

IN these roles Sheridan was at one with music whose infinitely subtle changes in mood, tempi and orchestral colours suggested, as in Bohème, both the depth and the transcience of youthful emotions (Mimì for example is 22, Musetta 20), music reflecting their unfulfilled searching and the intensity of their short-lived desire.

BOHÈME opened in Turin’s  Teatro Regio  123 years ago this month; audiences loved it but critics were divided: ‘Since it didn’t leave much of an impression on the hearts and minds of the audience this work will not leave much of a trace in the history of Italian opera’ (Carlo Bersezio, Gazzetta Piemontese); his unnamed counterpart for Secolo XIX di Genova wrote: ‘I may be over optimistic but I foresee a triumphant future for this opera’ (my translations); were they even there on the same night, you may well ask.

MEANWHILE Puccini now looked and sounded more like the heir to Verdi than any of his rivals and contemporaries, with his combination of a symphonic style, i.e. music which is continuously evolving, laced through with veins of traditional Italian melodies and poignant harmonies, while dramatically caring little for subtlety in plot or in character development.

WHEN I attended my first opera, a performance of Bohème in April 1962 at the Opéra-Comique in Paris, I had never heard of it or its composer; there were no pre-performance talks nor surtitles then and I don’t remember having access to a programme on the night; yet those couple of hours were instrumental in changing my outlook on life and my appreciation of music.

WITH the ‘sounder judgment’ recommend by Maugham I recently re-read Henri Murger’s text of 1851 - also available in English as ‘Bohemians of the Latin Quarter’ (Amazon, 2015) - and was struck again by the vividness and vivacity of the writing, and the underlying pathos and sadness of its episodes of bittersweet love and sacrifice, and I concluded that Philip in Maugham’s novel must have missed a great deal of this, enraptured and all as he was on first encounter.

FINALLY as to recordings: having listened over the years to most of them, the three which I consistently used with students were, in no particular order:

de los Angeles and Björling (Beecham, EMI, 1956), Tebaldi and Bergonzi (Serafin, Decca, 1958) and Freni and Pavarotti (von Karajan, Decca, 1972).

NONE of them is perfect but, taken together and cutting back and forth to contrast or to compare interpretations, they constitute an exceptional collection.

¹ ‘His use of leitmotif which is very evocative creates some palpable atmospherics set in scenes carefully crafted; but the voice is always pre-eminent, enhanced with melodies easy on the ear and underpinned by some well-coloured scoring which never takes its eye off the tragic narrative’ (my translation).

² The actual Café Momus was in the rue des Prêtres-St-Germain-l’Auxerrois, Paris 1er, just off the Place du Louvre and across the Seine from the Quartier Latin. It closed in 1856. Today the Relais du Louvre hotel stands in its place.