La Bohème

An opera in four acts by Giacomo Puccini with a libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica after Henri Murger’s novel Scenes de la vie de bohème. Premiered in Turin on February 1, 1896 at the Teatro Regio (now the Teatro Regio Torino).

Background on La Bohème

The life of Giacomo Puccini (1858 – 1924) spans a period frequently known as the age of verismo, or realism. The term primarily refers to the artistic and literary movements in which artists and writers focused on everyday subject matter and treated it in a true-to-life manner.

Opera, however, is rooted in myth or religious mystery, and traditionally it boasts superhuman heroes, grand affluence and emotional excess. Verismo arose in the 1890s in Italy and emphasized literary naturalism, contemporary settings, lower-class subjects and violent passions and actions. La Bohème, a realistic opera, depicts bohemians who are neither fanciful or fraudulent. They are real.

Realism was not only a movement in the arts; it was a philosophical attitude and a response to the unprecedented scientific and social changes of the 19th century, specifically the Industrial Revolution and scientific discoveries and their influences on society.

The Industrial Revolution led to tremendous growth of cities and was responsible for bringing artists in contact with all classes of people. This destroyed the old assumptions that the lower classes were too dull as subjects for art.

Developments in science, philosophy and the social sciences resulted in a revival of determinism, the idea that individuals have no control over their fate. Scientific discoveries threw doubt on religious ideals and discredited idealism in general. Materialism replaced idealism as the prevailing attitude.

Music was perhaps the last of the arts to be affected by realism because music is unrealistic by nature. Music heightens, rather than downplays, the importance of the drama and the people represented – the very opposite of realism. So, realism was not as effective in music as in the other arts because composers still needed formal and stylistic methods that were the opposite of the principles of literary realism.

Puccini was shrewd; he wanted to become rich and famous. So, he chose operatic subjects that reflected the realistic, deterministic attitude of his day. Also, he preferred presenting human situations for their dramatic effect, as opposed to the mystical and metaphysical ones. He portrays his heroines especially as figures who lack the power to control or change their fates. In La Bohème, for instance, Mimi’s love for Rodolfo is doomed by her ill health and his poverty.

By the turn of the century, discoveries in theoretical physics by Albert Einstein, Max Planck and others, contradicted the tenets of realism. New developments argued that time and place were not objective facts, but a matter of perspective. Artists in all fields then began to reflect this scientific overthrow of realism with a wide variety of new, non-objective, non-representational approaches. Post-realism includes writers James Joyce and Thomas Mann; painters Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro and Piet Mondrian; and the opera composer Benjamin Britten.

Realism, however, did not die. In fact, it continues to be a major force in commercial art today. Its influence can be felt in advertising, in films and on television programs, and in virtually all popular fiction.

Meet the Composer

GIACOMO PUCCINI (1856-1924)

Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini was born in Tuscany, Italy in December 1858 into a family of five generations of church organists, choirmasters and composers.

His father died when he was 5 years old, and the young Puccini was sent to study with his uncle. As a teenager, Puccini served as an organist to the area churches and played the piano as entertainment at social events. In 1876, the 20-year old walked more than 18 miles to attend a performance of Verdi’s latest success, Aïda. He decided then that opera would be his life’s work.

The greatest influence in Puccini’s life was his mother, who petitioned and received a grant to send her son to the Milan Conservatory, where he earned his degree in 1883. While studying there, Puccini obtained a libretto from Ferdinando Fontana, and entered a competition for a one-act opera in 1882. Although he didn’t win, Le Villi was staged in 1884 at the Teatro Dal Verme and caught the attention of Giulio Ricordi, head of G. Ricordi & Co. music publishers, who commissioned a second opera, Edgar, in 1889.

Edgar failed, which may have led to Puccini’s decision to write his own libretto for his next opera, Manon Lescaut. He said that “no fool of a librettist” would spoil it. Ricordi persuaded him to accept Leoncavallo as his librettist, but Puccini soon asked Ricordi to remove him from the project. Four other librettists were then involved with the opera, due mainly to Puccini constantly changing his mind about the structure of the piece.  It was almost by accident that the final two, Illica and Giacosa, came together to complete the opera. They remained with Puccini for his next three operas and probably his greatest successes: La Bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly.

The world première of La Bohème took place in Turin in 1896 at Teatro Regio and was conducted by the young Arturo Toscanini. The initial audience response was subdued, and critical responses were polarized. Despite this, the opera quickly became popular throughout Italy.

Puccini collaborated with several librettists on his works, including Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. His most famous operas include: Manon Lescaut (1893), La Bohème (1896), Tosca (1900), Madama Butterfly (1904), La fanciulla del West (1810), Il Trittico—a collection of three one-act operas: Il tabarro, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi (1918) and Turandot (1926) – unfinished at the time of Puccini’s death and later completed by Franco Alfano, one of Puccini’s protégés.

Puccini was somewhat reclusive. He preferred his home in the country to hectic city life and enjoyed hunting and long walks through the countryside. He was a lifelong smoker, particularly of cigars, and in 1924 was diagnosed with throat cancer. He underwent surgery, which left him no longer able to speak. He died of a heart attack four days later in 1924 in Brussels.

Production

James Meena

CONDUCTOR

Aldo Tarabella

DIRECTOR

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