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Giacomo Puccini and the World Premiere of La Bohème November 19 2021

INTRODUCTION 

According to Operabase, Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème is not only the composer’s most performed opera but it is also amongst the most often produced works of the entire repertoire only slightly behind such giants as Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, Verdi’s La Traviata and Bizet’s Carmen. However, La bohème’s grand scale and massive forces required to mount an appropriate performance make its position all the more impressive.

THE COMPOSER

Giacomo Puccini (1858 – 1924) was born in the Tuscan city of Lucca. A city which had a rich church music life having been the birthplace of multiple masters of the past amongst which Francesco Geminiani and Luigi Boccherini were particularly impactful. 

Giacomo Puccini Photograph

Puccini’s family had a strong rooting in music with several generations having been important opera and church music composers, organists of the cathedral and teachers. The young Giacomo received training from local musicians and by age fourteen he had already become a practicing organist for the church services around Lucca. His lifelong fascination with opera was born after attending a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida in the neighboring city of Pisa. 

[Photo] The composer during his visit to New York in 1910 for the world premiere of his opera "La Fanciulla del West" at the Metropolitan Opera.

After attending and graduating from both the Lucca Conservatory and the Milan Conservatory, Puccini embarked on a professional career as an opera composer. His first premiere came in 1884 when after receiving funds from important figures like Arrigo Boito and Giulio Ricordi, a stage production of Le Villi took place in the Teatro dal Verme in Milan receiving a warm reception and leading to a publication by the important Ricordi firm. 

The premiere of Edgar in 1889 had a slightly less positive reception than his previous work. Regardless of it going through a series of revisions, it was never able to truly find its place in the repertoire. Even to this day, except for some brief passages which are well known (like the funeral march which was even played at the composer’s funeral), the opera is seldom performed. 

Giacomo Puccini

In 1893 after the lukewarm reception of Edgar, Puccini embarked on the composition of Manon Lescaut. The process was long and difficult especially regarding the libretto which has the strange characteristic of having been written by at least six different people including Ruggiero Leoncavallo, Domenico Oliva, Marco Praga, Giuseppe Giacosa, Luigi Illica, Puccini and even the editor Giulio Ricordi.

[Photo] Giacomo Puccini's fame extended across the Atlantic. Here his picture signed and dated by him in 1905 during his visit to Montevideo, Uruguay.

Manon Lescaut became Puccini’s first success but most importantly it was the piece in which, after two failures, he finally understood what made for operatic success, thus firmly establishing his musical and dramatic language. However, to avoid creative stagnation, Puccini remained a lifelong student of the works of great masters, both dead and alive. He studied the most modern music of his day including the latest works by Debussy, Strauss and even Stravinsky’s early ballet.

THE OPERA AND ITS COMPOSITION

Having read Henri Murger’s work, Scènes de la vie de bohème, Puccini developed a connection with the stories in it which reminded him of his student days in the city of Milan. Furthermore, upon learning that his past collaborator, Luigi Illica, was working on a libretto adaptation of the stories, Puccini quickly jumped on the project, also bringing Giulio Ricordi onboard. 

Between 1893 and 1895 La bohème became Puccini’s main focus after abandoning his planned opera on La Lupa, a story coming from the same collection of Sicilian tales by Giovanni Verga which contained the famous Cavalleria rusticana, Pietro Mascagni’s widely successful verist melodrama. 

The composition of the music occupied the better part of two years, and the libretto completion was delayed by multiple corrections and objections on Puccini’s side who was with every successive project becoming more confident and attentive to detail. 

Puccini at work 1920

 Maestro Puccini shown at work in his piano -Photograph signed and dated in 1920

THE MUSIC

In terms of the music, this work inaugurates Puccini’s mature style in which he has already liberated himself from the common tropes and techniques of the verismo movement. His harmonic style is richer and more varied than that of his predecessors implementing elements of both Wagnerian music drama and French grand opera

Another important distinction is in Puccini’s extraordinary command of the orchestra and its music-dramatic role, similarly to Wagner, his orchestral writing shows a refined taste for tone color producing page after page of both subtle shimmering passages and violently loud effects. His orchestration also demonstrates a great concern with the singers’ comfort, normally employing doublings and light textures to allow the singers to shine freely and without strain. 

Franco Corelli in La Boheme

   Star tenor Franco Corelli as Rodolfo in Act IV of La Bohème - a Metropolitan Opera production

This score is also the one which inaugurates a new stage of Puccini’s style where he can be seen to start developing a deeper concern for the development of a sound world which captures the setting and poetic essence of the libretto. In La bohéme, the urban paced lifestyle of the characters in the city of Paris is masterfully crafted by employing a continuous style where the lines between aria and recitative are blurred and where there seems to be something going on at all times.

This principle can be best seen in later works like La Fanciulla del West, Turandot and Madama Butterfly where their foreign locations are masterfully represented, and the local color is explicit yet subtle.

THE LIBRETTO

La bohème’s libretto and general storyline is based on Henri Murger’s 1851 work, Scènes de la vie de bohème, a collection of loosely related narratives set in the 1840s in Paris’ Latin Quarter following the lives of several bohemian lifestyle practitioners including artists, writers and musicians. At its core, La bohème is a story about young love with a tragic unfolding, in the process exploring themes of passion, betrayal, loss and the passing of time. 

Giuseppe Giacosa

Luigi Illica (1857 – 1919) and Giuseppe Giacosa (1847 – 1906) were responsible for the adaptation to the libretto form. The former worked on the plot and produced the dialogue while the latter focused on polishing the final draft and shaping the language into a flowing verse form. The Illica & Giacosa pair would continue collaborating in other successful operas by the same composer, namely, Tosca (1900) and Madama Butterfly (1904). 

[Photo] Giuseppe Giacosa -one of the two librettists of La Bohème

Adapting the loose structure of Murger’s work was no easy task. The resulting libretto is largely original with several sections in the second and third acts being completely new arcs and storylines crafted by the librettists with only fleeting references to the original. However, some scenes from acts one and four are more closely related to the events of Murger’s story. The published version of the libretto contains a more detailed discussion on the different adaptations and transformations which took place to make it into a coherent storyline. 

THE MUSIC

La bohème is universally recognized for its extraordinary juxtaposition of grand choral scenes in a fast-paced urban setting with hundreds of performers onstage against intimate and lyrical scenes exploring themes of love and youthful passion. Some of Puccini’s finest pages can be found in this work, including perhaps the most famous love scene of all time at the end of act I where Rodolfo and Mimì stay behind and after a succession of lyrical arias sing a passionate duet about their infatuation. 

Another highlight is the second act’s urban café scene where the character of Musetta sings the aria Quando men vo, perhaps only second to Bizet’s Carmen L'amour est un oiseau rebelle in sensuality. 

 A rare clip of star tenor Luciano Pavarotti in 1965 performing live "Che gelida manina" from Act I of La Bohème, one of the most famous tenor arias of the  entire opera repertoire

After the light and merry elements of acts I and II, the final two deal with themes of death and pain. The couples split, Mimì’s health is in decline and the romantic version of Bohemian poverty we were presented in the first act is now a nightmare which would ultimately lead to Mimì’s early death. The final death scene is amongst the most heartbreaking moments of the operatic repertoire.

THE SINGERS

The leading roles of Rodolfo and Mimì were premiered by leading singers of the day, tenor Evan Gorga and soprano Cesira Ferrani. 

Gorga’s singing career was a short-lived one, quickly retiring at the young age of 34 regardless of his great critical success and early championing of the Rodolfo role. 

Ferrani on the other hand had a long and successful career, performing titles by Verdi, Wagner and even Gounod and Debussy. More importantly, she had also previously collaborated with Puccini when she premiered the title role in the successful 1893 opera Manon Lescaut

THE CONDUCTOR

Arturo Toscanini (1867 – 1957) was the conductor chosen for the premiere. He was a young and passionate musician who regardless of his young age (29 years old at the time) had already established a name for himself as a massively talented conductor and musician. 

La Boheme Playbill Trento 1896

Only a few years after the premiere of La bohème, Toscanini would be named resident director of the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. His success in this post would later lead to engagements with the Metropolitan Opera (1908 - 1915) and the New York Philharmonic orchestra (1926 – 1936)

[Image] Playbill for a performance of La Bohème in Trento (1896) conducted by maestro Toscanini

Toscanini had established a friendly relationship with Puccini and the pair collaborated across their lives in three different occasions, the premieres of La bohème, La fanciulla del West and Turandot. 

Toscanini’s final honor to his friend came after Puccini’s death when, following the composer’s untimely death leaving behind an incomplete version of his final work Turandot, the conductor helped in completing the score for performance. 

THE PREMIERE

La bohème’s opening night took place on the evening of 1 February 1896, at the Teatro Regio in Turin. The cast, the orchestra, the conductor and the composer himself were in prime form and rehearsal time had been ample enough to allow for a good performance. 

Some sources claim that the opening night cast received fifteen curtain calls, signaling a ravaging success, however, some accounts seem to suggest otherwise. Despite any discrepancies between the critics’ and the public’s reception, Puccini seems to have been quite happy with the premiere even sending the leading soprano Cesira Ferrani the following note: 

"To my true and splendid Mimì, signorina Cesira Ferrani, with gratitude, G. Puccini"

A score signed by the composer and both singers is a good testament of the amicable atmosphere which surrounded the premiere. 

La Boheme Score Signed

Score for voice and piano of La Bohème signed by the composer, tenor Evan Gorga and soprano Cesira Ferrani, creators of the lovers Rodolfo and Mimí

Following the premiere, the opera had several performances across Italy quickly reaching Parma, Napoles, Bologna, Milan and Bergamo. Already in 1896 the opera was performed in Buenos Aires, Argentina. In the following years it became wildly successful reaching Portugal, England, the US, Germany and France. 

THE RECEPTION

The opening night is said to have received mixed reviews with some critics considering it a risky choice for a composer with only one serious success on his back (Manon Lescaut) to produce a lighter work exploring themes of bourgeois city life and sentimentality. Even Toscanini himself supposed that the lukewarm reception might have occurred due to the apparent frivolity of the opera’s surface especially when comparing it to works so recent in the concertgoer's memory like Richard Wagner’s mammoth music dramas. 

On the other hand, the general public received La bohème with a lot of praise and it quickly established itself as the composer’s greatest success to date, completely eclipsing his previous works. 

Corelli in La Boheme           Star tenor Franco Corelli as Rodolfo in a scene from Act II of La Bohème - a Metropolitan Opera production

RECORDING HISTORY

La bohème is one of the most recorded works of the entire operatic repertoire. Its first complete recording came in 1917 under the baton of Carlo Sabajno with the orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala

La Boheme Recording

Several recordings with exceptional casts, orchestras and conductors have come around with the 1973 recording under Herbert von Karajan’s baton including Luciano Pavarotti as Rodolfo and Mirella Freni as Mimì being particularly recognized as having set a very high standard of quality. 

[Image] A live recording of La Bohème from The Met Opera starring soprano Licia Albanese and tenor Carlo Bergonzi

Another important feature of the opera’s recorded history is the fact that the widely successful aria Che gelida manina has been allegedly recorded by a massive number of over five hundred tenors over the last hundred years. 

However, perhaps the most remarkable recording ever was released in 1946, fifty years after the opera’s world premiere. This was led by the original opening night’s conductor, Arturo Toscanini, with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, Jan Peerce as Rodolfo and Licia Albanese as Mimì. 

LEGACY 

La bohème established itself as one of the cornerstones of the operatic repertoire. Young singers, accompanists and conductors study the work profusely with some of the most notable numbers like Mimì’s Si, Mi Chiamano Mimì, Rodolfo’s Che gelida manina or the O soave fanciulla duet being an extremely common sight in recitals, auditions and masterclasses. 

 Star tenor Luciano Pavarotti and star soprano Mirella Freni in 1964, singing the love duet from the end of Act I of La Bohème

Another important heritage which La bohème produced was the influence on the massively successful Jonathan Larson Broadway hit Rent, which is to this day a central work of the musical theater repertoire. Furthermore, La bohème’s influence doesn’t only revolve around its characters and storyline but actually on a much deeper level, it was the work which created and established the modern model for the boy-meets-girl trope which is amongst the most important narrative techniques in all western art.

SEE ALSO:

- La Boheme Score for Voice and Piano Signed by Puccini and the two leading soloists of the world premiere.

- La Bohème Playbill for a Performance in Trento, 1896, conducted by Toscanini

- Giacomo Puccini Signed Photograph during his visit to New York in 1910

- Giacomo Puccini Photograph Signed in Montevideo, 1905

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