Puffles and Honey are at the opera for LA Opera’s production of La Bohème.
At the end of January 1893, Giacomo Puccini, then 34 years old, was still a struggling composer, still hoping for a hit. Neither of his first two operas had become popular, but he had hopes for the future; and they were realised a few days later with the triumphant world premiere of Manon Lescaut. It made him famous almost overnight, boosted by the popularity of opera at the time. Within a week, Puccini was planning La Bohème.
For the third time, Puccini chose a French story as his source, which is not surprising, since he always had an international eye and a broad point of view. He travelled extensively all over Europe and visited South America once and New York twice and took side trips to places like Malta and Egypt. As for his operas, most were based on Italian sources. In addition to his first three “French” works, he used French source material for Tosca (set in Rome, but taken from French dramatist’s Victorien Sardou’s melodrama) and Il Tabarro, from a play about bargemen on the Seine, which exuded French local colour with its strong Grand Guignol underpinnings.
So in 1893, he became interested in Henri Murger’s popular Scènes de la Vie de Bohème, a series of little stories about Latin Quarter artists, their poverty and their loves. Having first published these very personal accounts in installments in a French periodical, Murger had then made them into a play and a novel. Puccini used both of those as source material for his opera.
To transform this French material into a libretto, the composer turned first to Luigi Illica, one of several men who had collaborated with him in the problem-ridden development of Manon Lescaut. It had been nothing short of chaotic, with six and even seven people writing a text, and Puccini rejecting one act, one scene or one line after another. In the end, the libretto of Manon Lescaut had to be published with no one listed as its author. But the hot-headed Illica coud meet Puccini head-to-head, however demanding the composer might be.
From 1893 to 1896, Illica worked steadily on the project with the composer and Giulio Ricordi, the powerful publisher who was Puccini’s mentor and sponsor. The first step: Illica wrote a scenario and then a drama based on the original play and novel. The poetic lines (required at that time by operatic convention) were then created by a revered poet-playwright, Giuseppe Giacosa, with Puccini and Ricordi adding their contributions to the text. This four-man team met often to discuss the work, batting around ideas and introducing new characters or new scenes. They also removed things that did not work, and Puccini even cut out one whole act. It was a process, not a single, lightning-flash act of creation. This same team of Puccini, Illica, Giancosa and Ricordi later created Tosca and Madama Butterfly, which would join La Bohème to make up the “trilogy” of Puccini’s most popular operas.
La Bohème became a window onto the Left Bank culture of Paris, but it also opened windows onto Puccini’s own life-experience. First it reflected what he had endured as an impoverished composer in the 1880s and early 1890s. Miseria! he would write in letters to his sister. So in the libretto, when the poet Rodolfo described the wretched conditions in his flat, Puccini could write about something he had actually lived through.
For years, he rented cheap furnished rooms or tiny apartments, most in desperate condition. He pawned personal things, then had to ask his sister for money to get them out of hock. In the freezing winters of northern Italy, he often had no heat. Nor was there enough money for a decent meal. In fact, we know what he ate: a couple of helpings of soup with bread, cheese and wine; a simple plate of Tuscan beans and onions with bread and wine; or fried eggs, cooked on a spirit stove that he perched on top of his upright piano. Once when friends dropped in, Puccini and his mistress and his brother (all crowded into two or three rooms) had to sell and trade household items to scrape together enough money for grungy meat to make a stew.
Nor was all that miseria left behind in Milan. Parts of Manon Lescaut and most of La Bohème were written in Puccini’s barebones lodgings in Torre del Lago, a raw and primitive fishing village on a lake in Tuscany. On the day he moved in, all his possessions could fit on a single donkey-cart; and his mistress said, “We don’t have enough to eat!”
Among the fishermen and their families in Torre del Lago were several young artists who soon became Puccini’s friends. Together they hunted, fished, drank, ate, staged mock-heroic battles, dressed up in sheets to act like ancient Romans, and played cards – tresette and scopa and briscola. Their refuge and sanctuary was a wooden hut roofed with dried reeds from the lake. They called it their Club la Bohème, and their antics and shared life certainly provided Puccini with material for his depiction of the artists in La Bohème. Three of these men were even identified with three of the principal male characters in the opera.
One of them, Ferrucio Pagni, who was closer to Puccini than the others, wrote later that when Puccini finished La Bohème, they were all together, for he often composed at night, with people talking or playing cards as he worked. On that occasion, Puccini was “just writing the last bars of the opera” while he and their cronies played cards nearby.
“Be quiet, boys!” Puccini said. “I have finished!” Pagni and the others got up from the table and went over to the piano. “Now I’ll let you hear it… The ending is good.” And he started to play Mimi’s last lines: “Sono andati.” As he played on and sang the words, Pagni said, they all had a sensation of “the eternal substance: sorrow”. At the end, they were all crying.
So Puccini never had to invent any “Bohemian life”. These descriptions of his years in Milan and Torre del Lago come from real letters – Puccini’s own and those of friends and relatives. This means that La Bohème, for all its romantic haze, is basically a realistic work, a snapshot of Puccini’s early years. Nor did he ever forget those terrible days. Many years later, when he was the richest and most famous opera composer in the world, he remembered one of those plain meals, and he remembered it when he was in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, sitting in his private parlor in the Imperial Suite of a luxury liner. In a flash it all came back to him, and he longed to smell beef stewing on a rickety stove, as it had in those long-gone days.
The world premiere of La Bohème took place in the Teatro Regio in Torino on February 1, 1896, with young Arturo Toscanini conducting. Los Angeles saw the first US performance of La Bohème in 1897.
LA Opera showed the 1993 production of La Bohème, by film director, former Broadway choreographer and perennial Academy Award nominee Herbert Ross, of Turning Point and Steel Magnolias fame. Tonight’s performance was Gustavo Dudamel’s debut with LA Opera.
Nino Machaidze returned in her role debut as Mimi, and Guatemalan tenor Mario Chang, who swept the Operalia competition in 2014, played the role of Rodolfo.