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  • Scott Williamson

More Notes from the Bohemian life

More Bohemian miscellany, trivia, as we prepare to open our new production of La Boheme, April 6!

Puccini's librettist, Illica, like Van Gogh, lost part of his ear in a violent incident. Like Pushkin’s, Illica’s wound was duel-inflicted.

Illica's co-librettist Giocosa wrote a role for the great Sarah Bernhardt. The two toured the US together. (Bernhardt created the stage version of Sardou's La Tosca.)

Puccini was considering Verga’s La Lupa, but dropped it for Bohème. “La Lupa” allegedly lacked ‘a single luminous figure’ (such as Bohème had in Mimi; see below).

(Musing: Might someone write La Lupa as La Bohème II: Musetta Strikes Back… Why wouldn’t the world want such a sequel?!?)


Musing on the matrix which contained mid-19th c. European modernism: the high Romantic period & the peak of the Industrial revolution (along with mid-century political revolutions, esp. in 1848, the year of Murger's original Bohemians); the Bohemian as archetype, both socially and artistically, and the artist’s position in / relationship to society.

Act 3 production photo from one of the original productions

4.IV.18 | 19 Nisan 5778 | Wed | Final Dress

Puccini’s “almost infallible instinct for devastating and concise emotion… he knew instinctively that modern opera didn’t rely on… narrative coherence. What mattered was that each of [the opera’s] acts had its own powerful individuality and dramatic shape.”

Puccini “arias [are like] fleeting ghosts…arising seamlessly…and disappearing… with all the more emotional power for their brevity.” (Quotes from Abbate and Parker, A History of Opera. The single best opera history now available in print.)


“Puccini’s operas speak above all to the emotions… and speak in a voice that is original, moving, penetrating, and sincere.” (G. Gatti-Casazza)


Anecdotes: Puccini and Leoncavallo in chalets on Lake Como in winter of 1890, writing Manon Lescaut and Pagliacci, respectively. Having friendly sport by hanging posters outside their windows: Leoncavallo displayed a clown, and Puccini punned on the title of his new opera by showing a hand (in Italian, mano = Manon in French).

His discarded project with Cavalleria author, G. Verga, whom he visited at the latter’s home in Catania (Bellini’s hometown)… He left Sicily early for Malta, and was arrested as a spy after photographing the British Navy (!) [Wilson biography]. On his trip home he encountered Cosima Wagner’s Countess daughter, whose attention he obtained after playing an excerpt from Tannhäuser on the ship’s piano. After she advised him against Verga’s “La Lupa” (“The She-Wolf”), he turned his libretto-subject sights elsewhere, citing the Verga story’s “lack of a central luminous figure.” He found exactly that in Mimi, the heroine of his next project, La Bohème.

Our set designer, Jimmy Ray Ward's Toulouse-Lautrec painting for the Act I wall of the Bohemian's apt.

(Our set designer, Jimmy Ray Ward's painting for the Act 1 SR wall of the Bohemian's apt. The homage to Toulouse-Lautrec is one of several "period" or "artistic" nods in our production, which "winks" at Puccini and his contemporaries in loving homage to this most popular of artist-themed, romantic tragi-comedies, La Bohème...)

from Cambridge Opera Handbooks, La Bohème (Ch. 4, “The Libretto”):

Murger’s novel was originally published in Italy as Scene della vita d’artista (1859).

Excised scenes where “Schaunard attempts to present a political platform whose articles trivialize basic concerns of the Paris Commune and 19th c. radical thought in general.” (p. 57)

The editors (Groos and Parker) credit Act III “to be entirely Illica’s invention” and cite its resonance with other “crossroads” or “gateway” places and moments in 19th century literature. They quote Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, and Hugo’s Les Misérables: “The place where a plain adjoins a city always bears the imprint of some indescribable, penetrating melancholy. There, nature and humanity address you at one and the same moment.” (p. 59).

(I love being such a nerd. And being around so many beautiful examples of exceptionally talented nerds, which we artist friends know ourselves to be... Ah, the Bohemian life!)

(Musing: The crossroads. The archetypal, mythical place where three roads meet. Where the Underworld / spirit-worlds are closest to the terrestrial world. Where Orpheus enters Hades. Where Oedipus or Harry Potter encounters / chooses fate... Toll-gates remind us of the Ferryman. Mimi's and Rodolfo's Act III "addio senza rancor" is a toll paid to Charon to allow one more crossing, which Act IV will afford as Mimi crosses the Styx of Rodolfo's threshold; or as he braves the Lethe of memories he cannot let go in order to embrace his Euridice once more...OK, so we're mixing mythological metaphors...)

Author photo, Venice, 2016

The editors of the excellent Cambridge Opera Handbook note the departures of Acts II and III from Murger’s original, while noting the closed musical forms of each of the central acts (the former is a concerto finale; the latter “a progression of numbers from solo recitative to fully developed lyric quartet”).

“Acts I and IV, on the other hand, reflect their literary ancestry, establishing a close-knit web of verbal themes.” Puccini’s keen motivic vocabulary – he uses themes not so much as symbolic leitmotifs but as gestures which establish and reinforce characters and situations, reorienting the audience’s focus with their immediacy.

After mentioning the mocking irony of the Benoit scene in Act I and the tragic melodrama of Mimi’s death, the editors conclude: “The libretto of La Bohème thereby self-consciously reflects the general shift in 19th century conceptions of the tragic from Aristotelian [= “classical”] norms of character and responsibility to an impersonal process beyond the individual’s control.” [= “modernist”]


Another original departure from Murger is the librettist's depiction of Mimi which connects her directly to her closest operatic parent, Verdi's Violetta. Mimi, a "femme fragile" with "skin that had the velvety whiteness of the camellia."


The "Bohemians subvert the 'high style' of literary usage by employing it in a trivial context." Which is another way of saying the Bohemian sense of humor is ironic, satirical, unafraid of slapstick or schtick to achieve an effect accomplished with sincerity, and requiring a necessary talent for comic timing, physicality, or voice. Among the other arsenals of talents today's opera professionals must have to succeed...

Van Gogh's drinkers

Allegri un toast! E via il pensier, alti i bichier! Beviam, beviam! ("Hurry, a toast! Away with thoughts; down the glasses! Drink, drink!" La Bohème, Act II)

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