Writing La Boheme: ‘Sono un poeta. Che cosa faccio? Scrivo. E come vivo? Vivo!’

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Last week I saw Puccini’s La Boheme at the Sydney Opera House. The Gale Edwards production set in 1920s-30s Berlin was so exciting, so energetic, the music’s still swirling round my head, especially Rodolfo’s aria ‘Che gelida manina‘, which I LOVE, especially the lines:

Chi son? / Sono un poeta. / Che cosa faccio? Scrivo. / E come vivo? Vivo?

(Who am I? I am a poet. What do I do? I write. And how do I live? I live.)

And of course Rodolfo and Mimi’s amazing duet ‘O soave fanciulla‘.

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But I’m writing about it here not because of the music but because of the fantastic story I read afterwards in the programme about its writing. Its traumatic creation is first mentioned in the programme by composer Gordon Kerry in his piece on the music, when he says:

‘The development of the scenario and libretto for La Boheme was, as so often, fraught at times. After much arguing over the final four-act shape, one librettist, Luigi Illica, famously remarked: “So: we now have a meeting in an attic between a seamstress and a journalist. They love each other, they quarrel, she dies.” And that is, of course, La boheme in essence – if we forget the role played by the music.’

And it’s written about in detail by Gordon Kalton Williams in his fascinating history of the opera and its composition, ‘Beautiful … sad‘.

The thing that so struck me in Williams’ story of Puccini’s La Boheme is the fact that there are TWO La bohemes. One, Puccini‘s, which premiered in 1896 and became a smash hit and one of the most regularly performed operas of all time. The other, Ruggero Leoncavallo‘s, which was first performed in 1897 and has since faded into oblivion.

Both were written in the same decade, both composers based their story on the same novel about arty life in 1830s Paris, Henry Murger’s Scenes from Bohemian Life (1845-49), and both contain similar characters and scenes. So why has one seized the imagination while the other gathers dust?

Williams suggests the answer to why Leoncavallo’s opera didn’t capture the hearts of audiences when he writes:

Leoncavallo

Leoncavallo

‘But by trying to portray faithfully the bohemian high jinks which are such a delightful part of the novel, Leoncavallo submerges a clear throughline, particularly in the long first act. We wait an age for some emotion to be engaged. There is a proposal to go the the Bal Mabille, the wealthy Barbemuche offers to pay the bohemians’ bill … At the end of Musetta’s soiree Viscount Paul steals Mimi away, but Leoncavallo has concentrated our attention on Marcello and Musetta (the lead tenor and soprano of his version), whose affair can never be as touching as the one that ends in death, and by the time Mimi’s death is announced in Leoncavallo’s version, the audience could plausibly ask, “Which one was Mimi?” We have established no particular rapport with her.’

On the other hand, as well as the genius of his music, Puccini and his three collaborators – librettists Illica and Giacosa and his publisher Ricordi – worked incredibly hard ‘to create dramatic situations that can really wring your heart’.

As Williams says, each member brought his own brilliance to the enterprise. It was Giacosa ‘who had to create wonderful verse from the treatments and dialogue that Illica would send him scene by scene, or from the nonsense verse to which Puccini composed his melodies as he sometimes sped ahead sufficiently inspired by the dramatic situation and sure enough of his dramatic instincts to go on without the exact words in hand’.

Puccini

Puccini

‘Puccini exasperated them all with his capriciousness and his indecision. He was always looking for a certain ‘something’. As Illica complained: “I don’t know where to turn to find which ‘something’ is the ‘something’ that Puccini calls ‘something’.” But listening to Puccini’s music, we can be thankful he clearly found it. Meanwhile, Ricordi kept his eye on all of them, brilliantly brokering their fallings-out and contributing his own occasional prod.’

Illica recalled the opera’s tumultuous 3-year creation in 1906:

‘Those sessions of ours [in Ricordi’s office] … Real battles in which there and then entire acts were torn to pieces, scene after scene sacrificed, ideas abjured which only a moment ago had seemed bright and beautiful; thus was destroyed in a minute the work of long and painful months. Giacosa, Puccini, Giulio Riccordi and I – we were a quartet because Giulio Ricordi … would always leave his presidential chair and descend into our semicircle … to become one of the most obstinate and most vigorous belligerents … Giacosa was for us the equilibrium, [his] voice … the delightful, persuasive song of the nightingale … And Puccini? After each session he had to run to the manicurist to have his finger-nails attended to: he had bitten them off, down to the bone.’

Giacosa was so frustrated by collaborating on La Boheme that many times he threatened to quit and ‘never write an opera libretto again’. But then one night in 1895 Puccini played him part of his work-in-progress. Giacosa wrote:

‘Puccini has surpassed all my expectation, and I now understand the reason for his tyranny over verses and accents.’

Such are the storms great art is born from.

At the opera’s fourth production – in 1896 at Palermo under conductor Leopold Mugnone – ‘the reception was so rapturous that Mugnone had to repeat the entire last act. The cast had already de-wigged and dressed to go home!’

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3 Responses to Writing La Boheme: ‘Sono un poeta. Che cosa faccio? Scrivo. E come vivo? Vivo!’

  1. Pingback: Fredric Jameson, Wagner’s Ring cycle and Cicely Gleeson-White | bookish girl

  2. Hi Jane
    I’m glad you enjoyed my article on La boheme. i was intrigued by how it all came together and how Puccini’s version came to be so affecting, so I’m glad that this aspect grabbed you.
    Gordon Williams

    • Lovely to hear from you Gordon, thank you so much for your comment. Yes, I LOVED your article, thought your way into Puccini’s Boheme was fascinating. And to have your mix of music and words … nothing better.
      All best wishes to you, Jane

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