Those familiar Bohemians—(to give their Italian names) Rudolpho, Marcello, Musetta, Mimi, and their friends—probably were once very live people, going precariously from day to day and having only boundless optimism and hearty interrelations to sustain them. Around 1847, Henry Murger published a series of magazine articles, really sketches, concerning the life of the Paris Bohemians. These became a play and later were incorporated in a book titled “Scenes de la Vie de Boheme.”
In the same way that “East Enders” finally took a sympathetic look at the citizens of that much maligned section of London and showed them to be interesting human beings, Murger’s stories did the same for Paris’s colony of starving artists, poets, philosophers, musicians, flower girls, and all the rest.
This is, of course, a candy shop for writers of opera libretti; and one Leoncavallo did indeed write a libretto in which Marcello and Musetta are the main characters, with Rudolpho and Mimi as secondary characters. It is said that Leoncavallo offered his version to Puccini, who thought it could not be very good or its author would have set it to his own music. Well, Leoncavallo did just that.
But Puccini was also interested in the Murger work as the source of a comic-tragic opera and discussed it with his publisher, the wily Giulio Ricordi. There is a story, difficult to confirm, that Ricordi, Puccini and Leoncavallo were having a drink at some café when the latter mentioned his intentions to go ahead with his “La Boheme.” Ricordi said his firm would have no interest in a work on that subject, knowing full well that he had already settled on Puccini’s version. Whatever happened that day, it is a fact that the two composers were on the worst of terms afterwards and that Puccini’s “La Boheme” premiered the year before Leoncavallo’s.
Going by the assumption that my readers are already familiar with the plot of the Puccini work, I think it best to concentrate on Leoncavallo’s treatment.
To start, a first hearing might prove disappointing. While the score is full of wonderful music in the orchestra (thank you yet again, Wagner), there are few of the vocal lines that one will recall once the curtain goes down—or the CD ends. Leoncavallo was following the path of the verismo school in which the vocal lines follow normal speech patterns and people do not burst into arias or participate in duets in the way they do in (say) the Puccini work. So when Leoncavallo wants a song from Musetta, someone must ask her to sing one. There is also a lot of fun when the men take on a spoof of Rossini’s music and when Marcello sings a snatch from Meyerbeer.
The order of the incidents taken from the Murger chapters is like this. In Act I, we meet all the main characters on Christmas Eve at the Café Momus, where the owner is insisting he be paid. After they order a large meal, they cannot indeed pay anything; but a stranger suddenly appears and offers to pay. Too proud to accept, Schaunard wagers the bill on a game of billiards with the man and easily wins.
Act II is out in the courtyard of the tenement in which the friends live. Abandoned by her rich lover, Musetta is out on the street; but a party they had planned is given anyway, to the great annoyance of the other tenants. Mimi realizes that one cannot live on love alone (a theme of this opera) and goes off with a rich gentleman, leaving her Rudopho to do without.
Act III begins where Puccini’s Act I begins, in the attic. There is a total change in mood. Musetta is leaving Marcello and Mimi returns, begging to be taken back. Marcello, unlike Puccini’s painter, thinks Mimi has turned Musetta against him, convinces Rudolpho to reject Mimi, and the two women leave in tears.
Act IV is practically the same as in Puccini’s work. A year has passed. Mimi, close to death, is brought back by Musetta. Her last words, and the last in the opera, are “Natale, Natale” (“Christmas, Christmas”), bringing us back neatly and sadly to the opening scene of the work.
How I wish some company would revive this work onto video to give us all a chance to enjoy it. In the meanwhile, there are one or two recordings on CD that might still be available. And, of course, one can always read the Murger novel and gain a good deal of insight into how different librettists treat the same source