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Theatre / La Bohème

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Giacomo Puccini's 1896 opera La Bohème, loosely based on the novel Scènes de la vie de bohème by Henri Murger, is one of the best-loved and most frequently performed operas today. It is also the (even looser) basis for the Rock Opera RENT.

Note: Despite the French setting and title, this opera is entirely in Italian, so adjust your reading accordingly.

It is Christmas Eve in Paris in 1830. Marcello, a painter, Rodolfo, a poet, Schaunard, a musician, and Colline, a philosopher, are cheerfully living the Bohemian life together in their garret apartment. Schaunard has brought home a veritable fortune from a musical job (the murder of an annoying parrot), and after a close call with the landlord collecting rent, they decide to go out and celebrate. Rodolfo stays behind a few minutes to finish writing an article, and his beautiful and pure-hearted upstairs neighbor Mimì enters, asking for a light for her candle. The two promptly fall in love.

In the second act, the five friends go out on the town together. Rodolfo and Mimì revel in their new love, but Marcello acts cynical, because he has had his heart broken in the past. At the café, they notice Marcello's old flame Musetta with a rich and boring old man, and she begins engaging in all sorts of histrionics to get Marcello's attention. He resists her charms at first, but soon gives in, and the six of them leave in triumph after pushing off their check onto Musetta's date.

The third act takes place after a span of several months: Mimì shows up early one morning at the inn where Marcello and Musetta have found work, and tells Marcello that Rodolfo has abandoned her, after behaving cruelly and being suspicious of her. Then Rodolfo, who is already sleeping inside, shows up, causing Mimì to hide. He complains of Mimì's infidelity and flirtatiousness, but then reveals the real reason for his leaving: Mimì is seriously ill, and he cannot stand to see her waste away in his cold room. After Mimì reveals herself by a fit of coughing, she and Rodolfo embrace, and agree to break up so that Mimì can find a wealthier lover—but because winter is so lonely, they will stay together until spring! Meanwhile, Marcello confronts Musetta about her flirting with other men, and they also break up in a violent argument.

Act Four begins back in the garret, with Rodolfo and Marcello both lamenting their lost loves. The mood brightens when Schaunard and Colline arrive with some bread, and the four friends gaily parody an upper-class banquet, complete with dancing and dueling. The fun is interrupted when Musetta arrives with the news that Mimì has collapsed on the stairs. The others band together to save her: Musetta pawns her earrings and Colline his coat. Mimì and Rodolfo are left alone together for the last time to recall their love and happiness. The others return with medicine and a muff for Mimì's cold hands, but it is too late. Mimì dies, and the opera ends with Rodolfo crying out her name over the body.

La Bohème has been adapted for other media many times, including a 1926 film (silent! no music!) starring Lillian Gish and John Gilbert.

This work contains examples of:

  • Author Avatar: Henri Murger, author of the novel, actually served as the basis of Rodolfo, and some of his other Bohemians appear in fictional form in the opera.
  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: Marcello and Musetta.
  • Beta Couple: Marcello and Musetta
  • Big Sleep: Mimi closes her eyes as she falls asleep—never to awaken.
  • Break Her Heart to Save Her: Rodolfo, knowing that he cannot take care of the fatally ill Mimì, briefly pretends to be a jealous jerk toward her, hoping to drive her into the arms of someone rich enough to care for her properly.
  • Butt-Monkey: Alcindoro, who is treated like a dog by Musetta and then left with the bill when she returns to Marcello.
  • Compressed Adaptation
  • Coupled Couples
  • Delicate and Sickly: Mimì's major character trait.
  • Dine and Dash: In the second act, the principal characters (the Bohemians) stop at a cafe and order lunches. Musetta is already at the cafe with Sugar Daddy Alcindoro, but she longs to rejoin the Lovable Rogue Marcello. Musetta feigns having an overtight shoe, and sends Alcindoro to the cobbler's shop to stretch it. The Bohemians join a passing parade to dodge payment. When the man returns, the Bohemians have taken their meals and departed, leaving Alcindoro on the hook for their collective tab.
  • Downer Ending: Despite the other characters selling the last of their possessions to get medicine, a doctor, and a fur muff, Mimì dies and then the curtain falls.
  • The Eeyore: Among the Bohemians, Marcello is the most pessimistic.
  • Femme Fatale: Musetta.
  • Fiery Redhead: In many adaptions Musetta is depicted as this.
  • "I Am" Song: "Che gelida manina"/"Mi chiamano Mimì".
  • I'm Cold... So Cold...: Invoked, then poignantly subverted. As she lies dying, Mimì is 'cold, so cold' and longs at least to warm her hands. Her friends rush out to buy her a fur muff. She is happy, and murmurs as she drifts off to sleep that she feels warm at last. These are her last words - she dies quietly, while the dramatic focus is on the other characters.
  • Incurable Cough of Death: Mimì. This horrible lung ailment does not prevent her from singing fortissimo, however.
  • Innocent Flower Girl: Mimì is described as an "angel" and her profession is to embroider flowers on to clothes.
  • Innocent Soprano: Mimi the innocent, angelic, and dainty seamstress is a light soprano.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Rodolfo to Mimì.
  • Leave the Two Lovebirds Alone: Colline tells Schaunard that he should leave them alone while he goes out to sell his coat.
  • Leitmotif
  • Lethal Diagnosis: Mimì's coughs are this.
  • Massive Multiplayer Ensemble Number: "Quando m'en vo"/"Chi l'ha richiesto?"
  • Meaningful Echo: Several. On her deathbed, Mimì explicitly quotes from "Che gelida manina" and "Mi chiamano Mimì" as she recalls how she and Rodolfo met; and at the very end, the music echoes the "Addio, addio" from the end of "Vecchia zimarra, senti".
  • Meet Cute: Mimì and Rodolfo meet when she wants to ask him to light her candle and they end up in complete darkness.
  • Minor Character, Major Song:
    • Parpignol the toymaker, whose appearance is pretty much a Big-Lipped Alligator Moment.
    • Colline's coat is treated like a character in the aria about it.
  • Mood Dissonance: "Dunque è propio finita!"
  • Mood Whiplash: "Si sgombrino le sale!"/"C'è Mimì... c'è Mimì che me segue".
  • Please Wake Up: Rodolfo to Mimì at the end.
  • Say My Name: A Tear Jerker at the end of the opera.
  • Sickeningly Sweethearts: Rodolfo and Mimì in Act II.
  • Slice of Life: One of the most appealing aspects about this opera is that, although it is billed as a tragedy, it has comedic and sentimental moments, but it's all down-to-earth.
    • It also appeals to many people because of how relatable it is. College students living in dorms may relate to Rodolfo and his friends, their playful shenanigans even reflecting those of drunken party games. Anyone who’s ever fallen in love may relate to either Rodolfo and Mimì or Marcello and Musetta, depending on how the relationship is going. Anyone who’s had a recent break-up may resonate with Act III and, again, may relate to either Rodolfo and Mimì or Marcello and Musetta. And a recent widower may weep with Rodolfo when he finds out that Mimì has died right at the end.
  • Starving Artist: The four Bohemian artists don't have enough money for firewood or food, and when they do get some, it's quickly gone.
  • Tender Tears: Rodolfo bitterly weeping after the death of Mimi. It can also cross over with Inelegant Blubbering depending on the tenor.
  • Those Two Guys: Schaunard and Colline.
  • Tsundere: Musetta, and how. More than one actor playing Marcello has noted that he barely has enough time to clean off the lipstick from Musetta after Act 2 before they have to get back on stage for Act 3 where she argues with him.
  • Victorian Novel Disease Sort of: as it's Very Loosely Based on a True Story, it is a real disease- tuberculosis- and the progression is more realistic than many depictions of it. But unlike tuberculosis, it doesn't appear to be contagious at all.
  • Writer's Block: "Non sono in vena!"