Opera plots - Puccini's La Boheme
Giacomo Puccini was born on 22nd December 1958 in Lucca, Italy, and died in Brussels, Belgium, on 29 November 1923. He had gone there to receive radiation treatment for throat cancer, which was much further advanced than he knew. He is best known for his operas, although he did write some orchestral and sacred pieces, etc. However, it is as the composer of such operatic standards as Madama Butterfly, La Boheme, Tosca and Turandot that he is justly famed. His skill at writing melody, and show-stoppers such as "Nessun Dorma" and Butterfly's lament, have made him universally popular, and not just with regular opera-goers.
The willing suspension of disbelief is required for any dramatic performance, but this seems to be especially so in the case of opera. For one thing, people just don't go around singing at each other, at least not where I live. In La Boheme, the degree of belief required of the audience seems to be higher than with most operas (see below). However, La Boheme has been a regular opera house favourite ever since its first production in Turin in 1896, with its shop-stopper numbers including "Your tiny hand is frozen" and "O gentle maid in the moonlight", which are often played out of context.
Act 1 - the garret of the "Bohemians" in Paris. The year is 1830
Four friends live in abject poverty, scraping a living as best they can. Rodolfo is a poet, Schaunard a musician, Marcello a painter and Colline a philosopher. As the curtain rises, Rodolfo and Marcello, cold and hungry, burn one of Rodolfo's manuscripts in an effort to keep warm. Colline enters, followed by a boy who is carrying fuel and materials for a feast. Schaunard appears, and explains that the goodies are down to an unexpected piece of good fortune. However, the good news doesn't last long, because Benoit, the landlord, now turns up to demand the rent he is owed. The friends ply him with wine, which loosens his tongue to the extent that he starts telling risqué stories. The friends pretend to be shocked and turn him out of the door.
Left with the rent money intact, the four decide to spend it in the Latin Quarter, but Rodolfo stays behind, saying that he has some writing he wants to finish. There is a knock at the door, and Mimi, a seamstress who lives in a nearby room, enters. She does not have a light for her candle, but this is soon put right and she leaves. However, she drops her key and Rodolfo offers to help her find it. When both candles go out, Rodolfo finds the key and pockets it. He remarks on how frozen her tiny hand is, and, as is often the way in opera, the two fall in love in about five minutes flat. They leave to join the others.
Act 2 - a square in the Latin Quarter
Not being used to having money, the friends spend it as fast as they can. Rodolfo buys Mimi a hat, and they all order lavishly from the café menu. While they are eating, Musetta, an old flame of Marcello's, comes along, accompanied by Alcindoro, a wealthy admirer of hers. Musetta would clearly rather have young Marcello than elderly Alcindoro, and sends the latter off to buy her a new pair of shoes. If he had any sense, he'd have seen through this one in half a second flat - what woman would ever trust a man to buy shoes for her? Once he is out of the way, Musetta throws herself into Marcello's arms.
The Bohemians find that Schaunard's money will not go as far as they had hoped, and they cannot pay the dinner bill. However, Musetta suggests that they add their bill to hers, which Alcindoro will pay. When Alcindoro arrives, he finds a bill of such huge proportions that he collapses in his chair.
Act 3 - at the customs gate of the city. Some time after Act 2
Mimi, who is unwell with consumption, asks the customs officers where she can find Marcello, who is working close by. She tells him that she has quarrelled with Rodolfo, but that she can live neither with nor without him. Mimi hides behind a tree when Rodolfo arrives and tells Marcello why he has left Mimi. However, Mimi coughs and gives away her presence. Rodolfo takes her in his arms. Meanwhile, Marcello becomes jealous of Musetta, whom he can see apparently flirting at the nearby inn.
Act 4 - the garret
The four friends gather for a scanty meal, although they pretend that it is a banquet. Musetta comes in, to say that Mimi is extremely ill. They all rush to help her and place her on a bed, and all but Rodolfo leave to pawn what they can to buy food and medicine for her. The lovers are reconciled and resolve never to part. However, it is too late and, as the other friends return with what they have bought, Mimi dies with Rodolfo weeping by her bed.
The plot of this opera is not particularly satisfactory, with little continuity after Act 2, and some unresolved loose ends. However, the music more than makes up for the poor storyline.
The main difficulty with La Boheme is surely the concept of starving down-and-outs being played on stage by opera singers who are earning enormous appearance fees and have obviously been keeping anorexia at bay very successfully for some considerable time. The idea of a soprano of the size of Montsarrat Caballé expiring of consumption, or hiding behind a tree of modest girth, is laughable. Rodolfo was often performed by Luciano Pavarotti, for whom starvation must have been a long distant memory for most of his career.
Still, it's the music wot counts, innit?