Bohemianism and Counter-Culture

La Boheme

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 La Boheme is considered one of the "three or four most popular operas in the repertory" (Groos and Parker, xi). The opera, with music by Giacomo Puccini and libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa is based on Murger's Scenes de la Vie de Boheme; it was Puccini's 4th opera and the second of his four most mature works: Turandot, La Boheme, Tosca and Madame Butterfly. It debuted in Turin, Italy on February 1, 1896 (Ashbrook, 115).  

 In this scene, Mimi and Rodolfo, center, confirm their love for each other while Marcello, left, and Musetta, right, squabble. Photograph from Groos and Parker's Giacomo Puccini: La Boheme.

The opera is based more on Murger's adaptation of his novel for the stage ("La Vie de Boheme," 1849) than on the novel itself. However, because the Murger's play was covered by copyright restrictions that did not affect his novel, Puccini, Illica, and Giacosa had to insist that Scenes de la Vie de Boheme was in fact the basis for their material (Groos and Parker, 56).

The opera also has important differences from both of Murger's works. His novel has no unifying plot but is instead a series of unrelated sketches; the play had too many subplots to be a viable opera. Additionally, the opera's Mimi is a composite of two of Murger's characters, Mimi and Francine; in the novel she dies at a hospital, alone (Groos and Parker, 41) as opposed to her on-stage demise in the opera and play. Many of the events that happen continuously in the opera are in entirely different chapters in the novel; events that seem momentous on stage are given only a few of Murger's sentences.


 Its plot centers around a community of artists in Paris, particularly between the romantic relationship of poet Rodolfo and grisette Mimi. Like the parallel relationship of Rodolfo's roommate Marcello and the beautiful Musetta, Mimi and Rodolfo's love is not without conflict. At the end of the opera, however, they are united tragically as Mimi returns to the garret and dies there, surrounded by her friends. Musical devices emphazise the libretto, which consists of common language turned poetic. For example, when Rudolfo and Marcello burn Marcello's play for warmth, "the orchestra depicts the reviving fire with a brilliant texture of pizzicato strings and detached woodwind and brass chords" (Groos and Parker, 13).

Costumes for the first production of La Boheme. From Groos and Parker's Giacomo Puccini: La Boheme.


Critics Arthur Groos and Roger Parker noted that the authors' choice of a tollgate for the setting of Act III, a place never mentioned in Murger's novel or play, might be indebted to Hugo's Les Miserables:

"End of trees, beginning of houses, end of grass, beginning of pavement, end of furrows, beginning of shops, end of ruts, beginning of passions, end of the divine murmur, beginning of the human hubbub . . . The place where a plain adjourns a city always bears the imprint of some indescribable, penetrating melancholy. There, nature and humanity address you at one and the same moment" (3.1.5)

This sad setting seemed fitting for the location of a scene where lovers quarrel (Groos and Parker, 59).