Image: Quartier Latin – 75005 Paris (5e Arrondissement). The area gets its name from the Latin language, which was widely spoken in and around the University during the Middle Ages, after the twelfth century philosopher Pierre Abélard and his students took up residence there.
La bohème is an opera in four acts, composed by Giacomo Puccini between 1893 and 1895 to an Italian libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, based on Scènes de la vie de bohème (1851) by Henri Murger. The story is set in Paris around 1830, and shows the Bohemian lifestyle (known in French as “la bohème”) of a poor seamstress and her artist friends.
The world premiere of La bohème was in Turin on 1 February 1896 at the Teatro Regio, conducted by the 28-year-old Arturo Toscanini. Since then, La bohème has become part of the standard Italian opera repertory and is one of the most frequently performed operas worldwide.
In 1946, fifty years after the opera’s premiere, Toscanini conducted a commemorative performance of it on radio with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. A recording of the performance was later released by RCA Victor on vinyl record, tape and compact disc. It is the only recording ever made of a Puccini opera by its original conductor.
As credited on its title page, the libretto of La bohème is based on Henri Murger’s novel, Scènes de la vie de bohème, a collection of vignettes portraying young bohemians living in the Latin Quarter of Paris in the 1840s. Although often called a novel, the book has no unified plot. Like the 1849 play drawn from the book by Murger and Théodore Barrière, the opera’s libretto focuses on the relationship between Rodolfo and Mimì, ending with her death. Also like the play, the libretto combines two characters from the novel, Mimì and Francine, into the single character of Mimì. Early in the composition stage Puccini was in dispute with the composer Leoncavallo, who said that he had offered Puccini a completed libretto and felt that Puccini should defer to him. Puccini responded that he had had no idea of Leoncavallo’s interest and that having been working on his own version for some time, he felt that he could not oblige him by discontinuing with the opera. Leoncavallo completed his own version in which Marcello was sung by a tenor and Rodolfo by a baritone. It was unsuccessful and is now rarely performed.
Puccini died in Brussels on 29 November 1924, and the news of his death reached Rome during a performance of La bohème. The opera was immediately stopped, and the orchestra played Chopin’s Funeral March for the stunned audience.
The first production of La bohème at the Salzburg Festival did not occur until as late as July 2012. However, that festival has not shown much interest in the operas of Puccini, only ever having one production each of Tosca and Turandot in its entire history.
Despite the opera’s popularity with audiences, Puccini has been the target of condescension by some music critics who find his music insufficiently sophisticated or difficult. The composer Benjamin Britten wrote in 1951, “[A]fter four or five performances I never wanted to hear Bohème again. In spite of its neatness, I became sickened by the cheapness and emptiness of the music.”.”