La Bohème: The Opera about “Nothing”

A friend complained that she profoundly disliked the opera La Bohème. Her criticism of Puccini’s hugely popular masterpiece is that the opera drags on, that it takes too long for Mimi to die, and that all of the operas she dislikes happen to be written by Puccini. These might sound like invalid criticisms, comments made by hurried, uncultured Americans who always want to “get somewhere” or something to happen. Lest one assume she is a complete cultural ignoramus, my friend is actually very knowledgeable about opera and the fine arts, and holds memberships to New York art museums though she lives in the Midwest. I was offended in jest, as I am currently learning the role of Musetta, which is as delightful as it is challenging, and will later learn the role of Mimi.

One could argue that we all have an artist we dislike in a particular genre. I doubt I will ever sit through an entire opera by Wagner, despite being an opera singer. But Wagner’s music is absolutely stunning in small doses. I find the overtures to Rienzi and Tannhäuser (one of my marooned-on-a-desert-island picks) and the Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin (tear-inducing when heard live by the Mariinsky Orchestra) to be heartbreakingly gorgeous. I have also joked that I refuse to see Puccini’s Turandot on moral grounds, that the opera is a sort of play-the-black-keys-on-the piano-and-it’s “Chinese” kind of Orientalism at its worst. But I do think it worthwhile to examine La Bohème in detail, to see if there is validity in my friend’s criticism of the opera.

La Bohème, essentially, is “an opera about nothing,” to borrow the analogy from the description of the hugely popular television show “Seinfeld.” The show focused on minutiae, where each episode was not about something grand or dramatic, but something small and silly, where the pleasure in watching came simply from being in the moment and enjoying the pleasure of watching, from funny lines or absurd situations or characters’ quirks. There is something to be said about this characteristic in all genres of artwork, where the realization of the work of art and its details, the way it reproduces reality or conjures the particular emotional feeling of the moment, is what makes it noteworthy. Impressionist paintings, for example, evoke a mood, as do 19th-century symphonic tone poems or a film like the stunning “Wings of Desire” (“Der Himmel Über Berlin”) by Wim Wenders, which is poetry on screen.

The main plotline to La Bohème is relatively simple—-a young dying woman, Mimì, falls in love with poor poet Rodolfo, who lives with his painter friend Marcello, and they are friends with other starving artists. Their relationship goes through ups and downs, as does the painter’s relationship with the coquettish Musetta. In the end, Mimì dies. All relatively straightforward, and not so much to stretch out into 4 acts. On this point, I would agree: La Bohème is too long; Act III could be condensed into Act IV. The opera could work in two acts, actually. The first could accelerate the meeting of Mimì and Rodolfo, then involve a set change into the café. At this peak of happiness, we could then see it all go downhill: Mimì seeks Marcello out to tell him of her unhappiness with Rodolfo, and then, after a set change, she dies. But even in condensing the opera into two acts, we are still ignoring a structural problem: too much of the action of here happens offstage. In this, the criticism that nothing happens in La Bohème may be well justified.

In Act I, the plot is set into action. We see Rodolfo writing and Marcello painting. We see their struggles as artists, we feel their suffering due to the lack of heat and food. And then most importantly, we see Mimì introduced onto the scene. We see her faint, we get to know her sickness. And then we see her falling in love with Rodolfo, and vice versa. In other words, Act I is active, because we are engaged with the events shown onstage.

Act II is less active, but we can forgive it because of one key reason—Musetta. She is one of opera’s greatest female characters, a free-spirited, vain, flirtatious, independent woman who will do as she pleases. She is one of the rare characters who does not suffer a tragic end, nor is she punished for enjoying her sexuality. Though we do not get much of the backstory of Marcello and Musetta’s, we get enough: theirs is an eternally on-off relationship that is generally taken lightly, in contrast to the deep, intimate, emotionally tortured relationship of Rodolfo and Mimì. We enjoy Musetta’s attention-seeking antics she uses to seduce Marcello, and her showcase aria, “Quando m’en vo” is arguably one of the most beautiful arias in all of opera. Act II is all about pleasure, pleasure in romance, pleasure in eating, pleasure in being surrounded by townsfolk. Though not super active, there is still visible action that drives the plot forward. Musetta is reunited with Marcello, and Rodolfo and Mimì are deeply in love forever.

Act III is where the opera becomes more passive. This fact is probably the most passive of all the 4 acts. Mimì has gone to seek Rodolfo at a tavern during winter. She reveals to Marcello what she has suffered from Rodolfo’s jealousy. Then, Rodolfo tells Marcello that he can’t bear it that Mimì is dying. The couple meets, and agrees to stay together until spring. While this is all fine and well, it is only because the music is so beautiful that the audience remains engaged. So much of the action has happened offstage–we have not gotten to see the downfall of their relationship, the arguments, the jealousies, Mimì’s slow decline. The contrast of a fight between Marcello and Musetta serves for comic relief: if Act II was a love moment, Act III is a hate moment in the roller coaster of their relationship. These two characters are not critical to the plot in the way Rodolfo and Mimì are. Time is stretched out in this act; it moves even more slowly than real-time.

Act IV is also rather passive until Mimì arrives on the scene. We have found out that she took up with a viscount after leaving Rodolfo, but has dragged herself, with the help of Musetta, to Rodolfo’s apartment to die. Again, too much has happened offstage that we want to know about–how did they survive the parting? What was Mimi’s relationship with this viscount? Did Rodolfo see any other women in the meantime? How has Mimì’s arrived at death’s door? Has she tried to save her life? Meanwhile, Musetta’s character arc shows her as less selfish than she was before. She has gone with Marcello to sell her earrings to buy Mimi a muff, and makes a sincere prayer to the Virgin Mary to save Mimi, an angel, considering herself unworthy of pardon. Her death scene is indeed touching, the group of friends surrounding her with their warmth and love. But again, one could argue that this act is stretched out longer than necessary, without much going on.

In sum, then, the problem with La Bohème is pacing and the portrayal of time. One must remember that the opera is based on a book, Scènes de la vie de bohème (scenes from a bohemian life), and therein lies the problem: the libretto is based on scenes. Any time a group of stories is woven together into a film or a longer work, such as an opera (and opera might be considered the equivalent of a novel), there is the danger of the longer work being fragmented. Longer works need structure and plot development. These two literary devices are the backbone or skeleton for a film or opera. Two people, Giacosa and Illica, also wrote the libretto and this may also be another source of the problem. Many films that seem unclear, messy, or fragmented have multiple writers, and it is rare when they can find unity in their vision.

This said, I still find La Bohème to be one of the most beautiful and engaging operas ever written. Puccini’s music carries the story even when it is weak, the language of the libretto is simply gorgeous and poetic, and the characters are as relevant today as they were over 100 years ago. They are rounded and complex, real and flawed. Proof of La Bohème’s popularity and relevance can be seen in Jonathan Larson’s 1996 musical, Rent. I personally happen to find the musical a somewhat vulgar copy of the opera, though I am always a fan of any modern work that draws on classics, such as the brilliant films that comprised 2005’s “ShakespeaRe-told”. There is no question that La Bohème will continue to be a classic for decades if not centuries to come.

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