A Bohemian State of Mind

Article by Gavin Plumley

The word Bohemia conjures up a world of misinterpretations. In Shakespeare the country has a coast, in modern Europe it has disappeared in a marriage with Moravia to form the Czech Republic and in Puccini’s 1896 masterpiece La bohème, Bohemia is the student world of 1840s Paris. Whether a real state or simply a state of mind, it has become a watchword for romanticism and a lust for life. For the characters in The Winter’s Tale, Bohemia represents an escape from the political wrangling of the Court of the King of Sicily. At the time Puccini was writing his tragic vignette, Bohemia proper was a hotbed of intellectual and artistic change, contravening the overbearing Austro-Hungarian rule. Although Rodolfo, Marcello, Schaunard and Colline all ape the seriousness of their Shakespearean and real-life Bohemian counterparts, they are essentially posers, caught up in the image of the Parisian flâneur and artistic dandy. It is only when Mimi enters Rodolfo’s garret for the second time at the close of the opera that the stakes are raised and the mirage of bohemian life becomes truly squalid. At that point Puccini unleashes all the power of his musico-dramatic skill, thus perfecting one of the most telling tragedies in the operatic repertoire.

But who can blame the four men at the heart of this opera? They are part of a much larger figment of the romantic imagination called Paris. From Victor Hugo’s grandiloquent vision of medieval machinations in Notre-Dame de Paris, through Violetta Valéry’s demise in La traviata and finally the chic of Doisneau’s lovers or Jules et Jim, the French capital has become a bastion of starry-eyed posing. Yet against this parade of couples kissing in front of the Châtelet or railing against the heavens from the rooftops of the city is a much denser socio-political movement. The Paris uprising in 1832, which happened just before Rodolfo and Marcello walked doe-eyed in through the city’s gates, was in some respects the beginning of this freethinking anti-monarchist movement, though it too had its roots further back, in the French Revolution of the previous century. In the wake of these insurrections, figures such as Charles Baudelaire arose. Baudelaire not only managed to write the liberal high-romantic polemic Les fleurs du Mal, but also to die in a heady concoction of laudanum, opium and alcohol, thus becoming the true exemplar of the Bohemian lifestyle. Despite his great literary achievements, it was not Baudelaire who ‘created’ Bohemia in Paris; rather it was down to Henri Murger. Murger’s 1849 play La vie de bohème gave a textbook illustration of that artistic and liberal existence, discovered and mimicked by a whole generation of young Parisians. In the aftermath of the toppling of the government in 1848, a bloody civil war and the Second Republic, a febrile and troubled period of rule, Paris was filled with youths willing to impersonate art, which had, to some extent reflected life.

While Murger’s characters proved inspirational to a whole new youth, he never sought to be political or avant-garde. Some directors have depicted Rodolfo, Marcello, Colline and Schaunard as proto-revolutionaries, snorting drugs and burning rioting pamphlets in order to be able to heat their home, yet this seems to miss an essential point. As Jerrold Seigel has explained, ‘Murger’s Bohemians did their dance of closeness and distance to bourgeois life to a rhythm of constant ambivalence’. In short, this quartet of poet, artist, philosopher and musician, can more easily be seen as bourgeois boys playing at being poor. Marcello is perhaps the only one of the quartet actually to be seen at his work. As the opera begins he is found painting a religious canvas “Il passaggio del Mar Rosso” on the subject of the flight of the Israelites from Pharaoh’s clutches, perhaps indicating that Marcello is under commission, perhaps in the patronage of the church. Rodolfo may appear the very picture of the struggling poet, watching the smoke from the Parisian chimneys climbing up to the sky, yet he is more concerned with the lack of heat in the garret than getting on with his work. His latest play is a means to an end when they burn the manuscript for warmth. Colline arrives in a relatively idealistic mood, but an audience member would question immediately how an amateur philosopher could scrape a living in 1840s Paris. Schaunard is the only one of the friends to proffer any material contribution, yet has he been selling his musical skills to Lord Milord or merely playing with the aristocrat’s maid? While it would be churlish to view the first act, replete with its bonhomie and Christmas Eve magic, as a trifle, at no point do the flatmates indicate that they are hard working artists. As the other three skip off to the Café and Rodolfo stays behind to complete his article (which one doubts he has even started) the mood changes completely.

While contemplating work, Rodolfo hears a woman, Mimi, coughing on the stairs. In comparison to Rodolfo’s ardent yet futile promises of building ‘castle in the air’ and living ‘in my contented poverty’, Mimi immediately talks about her work, embroidering linen and silk. Her touching naïve manner heralds in Rodolfo his truly lyrical spirit as the newfound lovers launch into their first duet. Rather than horsing around with his mates, here our tenor is the poet-serious. Yet it is one of his failings that neither he, nor Mimi are able to maintain such commitment. However flawed their relationship, Mimi remains the emotional centre of La bohème. Marcello’s Musetta is, of course, a totally different kind of woman. Bold, brazen and a fast worker with Alcindoro, the rich man attracted to her, she is a courtesan in all but name. It is she who gets the flatmates out of their scrap when paying the bill at the Café Momus, but it is also Musetta who brings Mimi back to the garret when the true frailty of her nature is exposed. She is, perhaps, the mirror image of Mimi: her unabashed waltzing aria ‘Quando me n’vò’ the polar opposite to Mimi timid ‘Sì, mi chiamano Mimi’.

This dialectic between the serious and the fun is essential to the construction of La bohème. The to-ing and fro-ing from lads’ joshing to untimely death represented a serious musicodramatic challenge for Puccini. Likewise, the composer was confronted with a drama in which Rodolfo might seem frivolous one minute, but is convincingly capable of the terrible cries with which he greets Mimi’s death. It is no coincidence that La bohème follows Manon Lescaut in Puccini’s career. In his earlier opera, Puccini also had present two very different worlds simultaneously. There he first had to deal with the Manon who is sexual tempter both to her master Geronte and to her young student lover Des Grieux, flitting vivaciously from one to the other. Secondly, the libretto called upon the horrendously degraded scene of the Penal Colony in New Orleans. While geographically more localised, La bohème follows that tragic descent and the four acts of its synopsis very distinct moods. Act 1 moves from japing around to full-blooded romance in very quick succession. The second act is a veritable party, while the third act is its mirror image, frozen in winter and pregnant with hope for the spring. The final act seems to repeat the first, though this second time Mimi’s appearance brings a much gloomier prognosis than her and Rodolfo’s first glorious meeting. It is during this final act that all the larking around ceases and the flatmates’ professions and personalities are reduced to nothing in the face of real tragedy.

The construction of the fourth act is exemplary, with every bar and word timed to perfection. Though some have seen this as highly manipulative on Puccini and his librettist collaborators Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa’s part, it is now more readily seen as an example of Puccini’s truly ingenious skill as an opera composer. With our return to the Bohemians’ garret, the composer launches us into the Allegro vivace theme with which he began the first act. Among Marcello and Rodolfo’s conversation we can hear strains of the love duet and Musetta’s glorious waltz from act two. Schaunard and Colline return and the mood becomes increasingly silly, with the flatmates leaping through gavottes, fandangos and quadrilles. This is pure teenage prankishness and it is interrupted by an incredibly brutal change of gear. Musetta’s arrival with Mimi wracked with consumption triggers in the men a sea change of emotion. Although one could see Colline’s ensuing lament to selling his coat as further posing, his brief aria concludes with a doom-laden motif that will return in the final bars of the piece. Puccini has revealed, albeit secretively, that a rather grim end is in sight.

How different, then, to the promise of seasonal fun at the Café Momus at the equivalent point in the first act. Constantly referring back to themes from the previous acts, Puccini unfolds Mimi’s final painful hour; the music drips with nostalgia and regret. Once Colline has gone out to sell his coat, we hear strains of the duet, ‘O Soave fanciulla’. But unlike when these tunes are heard first in their full-throated glory, the fourth act has a pathetic and hushed demeanour. The tragedy is all the more palpable because it is so quiet, so unlike the action that has preceded it. As well as being totally truthful to the mood of the drama, Puccini shows a remarkable development in his characters’ emotions. Rodolfo, the lazy and rather whimsical poet of the first act, has become the true operatic tenor, his feelings larger than life when he learns that his lover has died. Being cynical, one feels that Mimi’s horrendous passage will provide Rodolfo the poet with the inspiration he needs. It is, after all, her entrance and exit in his life on which Puccini focuses his and our attention; it is her death that sadly makes this opera the true picture of Bohemian life. Even Musetta, seemingly the most resilient of the characters, is irrevocably changed. All pragmatism, her voice throughout the fourth act never rises above a medium dynamic and no longer scaling the heights of her more outlandish passages at the Café.

When Puccini was working on this incredible work, his Italian contemporaries had become obsessed with naturalistic drama. The verismo tradition in Italian opera, which arose through a fascination with gritty slice-of-life realism, became dominant across the continent. What is so remarkable about Puccini’s La bohème, in comparison with his peer Leoncavallo’s opera based on the same subject, is that it moves far beyond a slavish representation of Murger’s Bohemian world. As all the flatmates leave behind their joking when confronted by Mimi’s arrival in the fourth act, so to does Puccini’s dramatic style. No longer content to parrot the calls of the milkmaids on their way to work at dawn, or the shouts of the children on Christmas Eve, Puccini creates a swirling mass of psychologically telling motifs. While the music of La bohème is uniformly rich and detailed, it is in the repetition of gorgeous melodies and simple musical touches in the tragic circumstances of Mimi’s final moments that each and every character on stage bursts into three-dimensional life. The posing of the Bohemian movement ends and the throb of real life bursts over the footlights and grabs the audience by the throat – more real than anything you will encounter in one of the model examples of verismo. Only the very hard-hearted could afford not to weep.

Gavin Plumley has written and broadcast widely about twentieth century opera. He has contributed to Opera, Opera Now and The Guardian and writes a blog at entartetemusik.blogspot.com