The second instalment in our look at Operas pairing French seamstresses and artists considers probably the most famous such pairing – that of Rodolfo and Mimi – as set in Puccini’s opera La Bohème.

Like in our earlier example (Charpentier’s Louise), the time and place are Paris in the mid 1800’s, but here the social context and viewpoints are different. In Louise, we saw her living at home, looking for freedom and the dynamic with her parents serving as the backdrop to the love story.

Puccini proposes free-spirited characters, unbound by the trappings of family (or authority, really) and composing with the challenges (mostly financial) of their bohemian existence. In spite of its many upbeat moments, the underlying “principal plotline” of Rodolfo and Mimi’s relationship is something of a tragedy with – unlike the fate of Louise and Julien – the death of one of the lovers.

The libretto of La bohème (by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa) is based on Henri Murger's novel, Scènes de la vie de bohème, a collection of vignettes portraying young bohemians living in the Latin Quarter of Paris in the 1840s. Much of the libretto is original; the main plots of acts two and three are the librettists' invention, with only a few passing references to incidents and characters in Murger’s novel.

Most of acts one and four follow the novel, piecing together episodes from various chapters. The final scenes in acts one and four—the scenes with Rodolfo and Mimì—resemble both the play and the novel.
Like the 1849 play by Murger and Théodore Barrière, the libretto combines two characters from the novel, (Mimì and Francine), into a single character (Mimi). The published libretto includes a note from the librettists briefly discussing their adaptation. Without mentioning the play directly, they defend their conflation of Francine and Mimì into a single character: "Chi può non confondere nel delicato profilo di una sola donna quelli di Mimì e di Francine?" ("Who cannot confuse in the delicate profile of one woman the personality both of Mimì and of Francine?").

Surprisingly maybe, Charpentier’s opera is in my mind more “verismo” than Puccini’s; it is much longer, and its text and emotions is a lot more “raw”. There probably lies the reason why it is less popular. If we look for opera as an escape from the everyday, Boheme packs more of a spectrum of emotions, with almost equal moments of laughter and tears, whereas Louise presents things “as they are”.

Oh, and Boheme has so many memorable arias…

What a way to kick off the Summer!


Renata Tebaldi was a dominant lirico-spinto soprano in her day, portraying (and dying in) all the principal Puccini heroin roles with an unmistakable voice. An established Italian Diva, Tebaldi made her American debut in 1950 as Aïda at the San Francisco Opera; her Metropolitan Opera debut took place on 31 January 1955, as Desdemona opposite Mario del Monaco's Otello. For some twenty years, she made the Met the focus of her activities. She had developed a special rapport with the Met audiences and became known as "Miss Sold Out". She sang there some 270 times in La bohème, Madama Butterfly, Tosca, Manon Lescaut, La Fanciulla del West, Otello, La forza del destino, Simon Boccanegra, Falstaff, Andrea Chénier, La Gioconda and Violetta in a production of La traviata created especially for her. By the end of her career, Tebaldi had sung in 1,262 performances, 1,048 complete operas, and 214 concerts.
Tebaldi recorded Boheme twice for DECCA Records, in 1951 and 1958, both with the National Academy of Santa Ceclila. The recording I chose is the 1951 version (downloaded a few tears ago from the Japanese Public Domain Classic site), conducted by Alberto Erede.

Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
La bohème, opera in four acts (1896)
Italian libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, based on Scènes de la vie de bohème by Henri Murger.

Renata Tebaldi, Mimì
Hilde Güden, Museta
Giacinto Prandelli, Rodolfo
Giovanni Inghilleri, Marcello
Raffaele Arié, Colline
Fernando Corena, Schaunard
Coro e Orchestra dell Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia under Alberto Erede
(Studio, 1951)

Performance (Internet Archive):

OTF takes a break for the Summer. Back in September with more opera and classics!