It is one of the most popular operas in the repertoire, and has been since its 1896 premiere. It is a wonderful piece: tender, tragic, big-hearted, yet written to a human scale, and awash in gorgeous melodies. There are few operas that I enjoy more than this. In my opinion it is Puccini’s best.
The first Act is a marvel. It opens with a scene of warm, intelligent, and heartening male camaraderie, the likes of which we do not often see in our contemporary popular entertainments. This yields to the first meeting of the opera’s principal romantic leads, Rodolfo and Mimi. Mimi knocks on the door of Rodolfo’s flat, her candle having gone out. The two arias in which they introduce themselves to one another must be among the greatest back-to-back arias in the operatic tradition. Rodolfo begins, singing Che gelida manina (What a cold little hand), and, with hardly a beat wasted, Mimi responds with Si, mi chiamano Mimi (Yes, they call me Mimi). The music of both arias is integral to the score of La bohème, reappearing in various guises as the story develops.
Here is Che gelida manina, sung by Luciano Pavarotti, with English subtitles. This clip is long; the aria begins at 4:25.
And here is the young Mirella Freni singing the response, Si, mi chiamano Mimi.
After a short transitional section, the first Act closes with a famous duet for Rodolfo and Mimi, O soave fanciulla (O gentle maiden), in which the pair sing of the love that has suddenly blossomed between them. It is probably my favourite section of music in the opera. It is sung here by Jussi Bjorling and Renata Tebaldi, in a performance from 1956. No subtitles, but you can find the text and translation here. Don’t neglect to listen to the off-stage high notes at the end!
Act II takes place in an open air Parisian cafe, and introduces us to Musetta, a fiery beauty whose on-again, off-again relationship with Rodolfo’s friend Marcello plays as counterpoint to the tender romance of Rodolfo and Mimi. The big showpiece in this Act is “Musetta’s Waltz”, Quando me’n vo’ (When I go along), sung here by Adriana Martino in a performance from 1965, with English subtitles.
The third Act takes place on a cold, wintry night at a lonely toll gate to the city. It is a wonderfully atmospheric segment of the opera. Several months have passed, and Mimi has grown ill with tuberculosis. Rodolfo, overcome with grief at her suffering, is tempted to separate from her, fearing that he will be unable to bear her further deterioration. But he resists the temptation, and he and Mimi vow to remain together, at least until the spring. The Act closes with a splendid quartet, Addio, dolce svegliare (Goodbye, sweet awakening), in which the faltering but resilient love of Rodolfo and Mimi is celebrated against the background quarreling of Marcello and Musetta. Neil Shicoff and Ileana Cotrubas sing Rodolfo and Mimi, and Thomas Allen and Marilyn Zschau sing Marcello and Musetta, from a Royal Opera House (London) performance from 1982.
In the fourth and final Act Mimi’s illness has worsened. She and Rodolfo have a lovely duet, Sono andati? (Have they gone?), in which they reminisce about their first meeting (from Act I). Their recollections are happy ones, but sorrow hangs over them; as listeners, we suspect that they have turned to memories because the looming future is so unbearably sad. Here are Luciano Pavarotti and Fiamma D’Amico, from 1986. This clip actually continues straight through to the end of the opera.
The closing pages of La bohème are devastating. For the first time since the opera began, the orchestra falls silent for an extended period, so that we begin to hear stage noises, footsteps scuffling on the floor. The singers drop into spoken dialogue, frantic and halting. By these means, Puccini achieves something quite remarkable: he conveys something of the sheer eeriness of death. When it is done well, the effect is unforgettable.