Name: La bohème (The Bohemians)
Composer: Giacomo Puccini
Librettist: Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa
Inspiration: the novel Scènes de la vie de bohème (Scenes of Bohemian Life) by Henri Murger
First performed: 1 February 1896 at the Teatro Regio, Turin
In one sentence: the lives, loves, friendships and tragedies of starving artists in 1830s Paris.
Famous characters: the four artists themselves – Rodolfo the poet, Marcello the painter, Schaunard the musician, and Colline the philosopher. The beautiful, tragic Mimì, a poor seamstress. A young Luciano Pavarotti played Rodolfo in 1972; the part has also been sung by Plácido Domingo and Enrico Caruso. Montserrat Caballé was Domingo’s Mimì.
Music you might recognise: Puccini created some of the most moving and famous arias in the world, including the tenor solo ‘Che gelida manina’ (‘Your tiny hand is frozen’) and ‘Sì, mi chiamano Mimì’ (‘Yes, they call me Mimi’). The highlight for many is the duet ‘O soave fanciulla’ (‘O lovely maid in the moonlight’).
Penniless bohemians Rodolfo and Marcello are trying to get warm in their shared attic room. Their flatmates Colline and Schaunard return home; the latter has earned some money and has food and wine. He insists that they go out to eat. The others leave to party at the Café Momus, while Rodolfo remains behind to finish some writing.
A neighbour, Mimì, knocks on the door and the two fall in love at first sight. They join Rodolfo’s three friends at the café, where they eat, drink and revel, and are joined by an old flame of Marcello’s, Musetta. Despite being with a new man, Musetta throws herself at Marcello and the pair reunite.
The two pairs of lovers are torn apart by the men’s jealousy. However, Rodolfo admits to Marcello that the real reason he must leave Mimì is that his poverty is making her illness worse and he fears she will die. Secretly listening to the two friends, Mimì overhears him and reveals herself to him. The two lovers agree to part.
Months later, back in the bohemian’s garrett, Rodolfo and Marcello reflect on their loneliness. Colline and Schaunard come in with food and they pretend it’s a feast. Musetta bursts in to tell them that Mimì is very ill. They all go to her and try to help her, but it’s too late. Mimì dies and Rodolfo collapses in despair.
Puccini’s La bohème at Opera Holland Park, 11 June 2016 (Robert Workman).