La bohème  

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A Paris street - set design for Act II of Puccini's La bohème by Adolfo Hohenstein
A Paris street - set design for Act II of Puccini's La bohème by Adolfo Hohenstein

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La bohème is an opera in four acts by Giacomo Puccini to an Italian libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, based on Scènes de la vie de Bohème by Henri Murger. The world première performance of La bohème was in Turin on February 1, 1896 at the Teatro Regio (now the Teatro Regio Torino) and conducted by the young Arturo Toscanini. In 1946, fifty years after the opera's premiere, Toscanini conducted a performance of it on U.S. radio, and this performance was eventually released on records and on compact disc. It is the only recording of a Puccini opera by its original conductor.


Origin of the story

According to its title page, the libretto of La bohème is based on Henri Murger's novel, Scènes de la vie de bohème. However, Théodore Barrière, in collaboration with Murger, had written a 1849 play based on that work with a much more unified plot than the novel's collection of vignettes. Puccini and his librettists likely used both sources as a resource for the libretto. As in the play, the opera's libretto focuses on the relationship between Rodolfo and Mimì, ending with her death. Also like the play, the libretto combines two characters from the novel, Mimì and Francine, into a single Mimì character. However, Puccini chose to follow the overall storyline of the novel over the play, as the play's plot runs uncomfortably close to that of La traviata (Mimì is persuaded to leave Rodolfo by her lover's wealthy uncle, who uses the same arguments as Verdi's Germont).

The published libretto includes a note from the librettists alluding to these adaptations, which are represented as a natural consequence of adapting the novel's stories to the stage but without mentioning the play at all. At the time, the novel was in the public domain, Murger having died without heirs, but rights to the play were still controlled by Barrière's heirs. Other topics, characters and events in the opera are gathered from various other stories in the novel. Puccini's intention to base an opera on Murger's novel appears to date from the winter of 1892–3, shortly before the première of Manon Lescaut. Almost at once it involved him in a controversy in print with composer Ruggero Leoncavallo, who in the columns of his publisher's periodical Il secolo (20 March 1893) claimed precedence in the subject, maintaining that he had already approached the artists whom he had in mind and that Puccini knew this perfectly well. Puccini rebutted the accusation in a letter (dated the following day) to Il corriere della sera and at the same time welcomed the prospect of competing with his rival and allowing the public to judge the winner. He further tried to secure the legal rights to the novel but was unsuccessful as the work was in the public domain. Leoncavallo's used his own libretto for his La bohème, which was premiered in 1897, and focuses more on the Musetta and Marcello relationship, rather than that of Mimì and Rodolfo as in Puccini's version. The winner of the competition between the two is quite clear as Leoncavallo's version is almost never performed, while Puccini's is a staple of the operatic repertoire.

Meaning of the title

Since the 16th century, the French word bohémien was used to refer to gypsies, based on the erroneous belief that they come from Bohemia. As gypsies are associated in the common imagination with a wild and free life separate from rigid society, the name came to be associated with the counter-culture of young artists other rebels in the Latin Quarter of 19th century Paris. This was a common colloquial term in Paris, when Henri Murger used it in the title of the stories which eventually became the basis for the opera. The fame of Murger's stories carried the term to the world beyond Paris and into other languages, such as English, where "bohemian" has a similar connotation.

The word bohème denotes the place where these bohemians live, and thus translates to "Bohemia". When referring to the geographic region, the preferred French spelling was (and is) Bohême, with a circumflex. Murger encouraged the alternate spelling of bohème, with a grave accent, to specify the conceptual Bohemia he wrote about. In the preface to Scènes de la vie de bohème he wrote, "La Bohème, c'est le stage de la vie artistique; c'est la préface de l'Académie, de l'Hôtel-Dieu ou de la Morgue." ("Bohemia is a stage in artistic life; it is the preface to the Academy, the Hôtel-Dieu [hospital], or the Morgue.)

Although Puccini's opera is in Italian, it was given a French title, shortening Murger's title to simply La bohème. A literal translation of this would be "Bohemia" but in the poetic sense of the word, not the geographic. (It has sometimes been rendered in English as "The Bohemian Girl", possibly under the influence of Michael Balfe's opera of that name, but that is erroneous. "The Bohemian girl" (or gypsy girl) would be bohémienne.)


Role Voice type Premiere Cast, 1 February 1896
(Conductor: Arturo Toscanini)
Rodolfo, a poet tenor Evan Gorga
Mimì, a seamstress soprano Cesira Ferrani
Marcello, a painter baritone Tieste Wilmant
Schaunard, a musician baritone Antonio Pini-Corsi
Colline, a philosopher bass Michele Mazzara
Musetta, a singer soprano Camilla Pasini
Benoît, their landlord bass Alessandro Polonini
Alcindoro, a state councillor bass Alessandro Polonini
Parpignol, a toy vendor tenor Dante Zucchi
A customs Sergeant bass Felice Fogli
Students, working girls, townsfolk, shopkeepers, street-vendors, soldiers, waiters, children

See also

La bohème (disambiguation)

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "La bohème" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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