Notes from Prof. Corliss Phillabaum

A Tale of Five Bohèmes

The multiple incarnations of Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de Bohème began as borderline journalism. In the late 1840’s the young struggling author began to find success with a series of fictionalized accounts of his life and loves with his artist friends in Paris. The stories appeared in serialized form, embroidering on events as they were happening in their ‘Bohemian’ life. (The term ‘Bohemian’ originally referred to Gypsy clans from Eastern Europe in the 19th Century but by mid-century had begun to be used to refer to the often, romanticized free and easy lifestyle of artists.) Murger then adapted the stories as a play, in collaboration with Theodore Barriere; this was the second of our five Bohèmes. The play was a hit and prompted Murger to collect the stories and add some new material to form an episodic novel, the third of our Bohèmes. Murger wrote a number of other works over the next ten years but is remembered mainly for these tales of ‘Bohemian’ life. He died in 1861 at the age of 39.
The story of the creation of the fourth and fifth of our Bohèmes is complicated, a bit nasty, and riddled with questions of ‘he said’ and ‘I never said.’ In March, 1893, Puccini and his old friend Ruggero Leoncavallo met by chance in Milan and went to a café to chat about their current projects. When Puccini mentioned that he was working on a Bohème, Leoncavallo was astonished. He too was working on a new opera on the topic and said he had previously offered the libretto he had written to Puccini who had returned it unread, saying he was busy with other projects. This conversation turned into a battle of press releases and recriminations over who had the prior claim on the rights. Apparently neither composer nor publisher had checked on the rights but when they did, they learned that the novel was in the public domain! As a result the dispute was moot and both projects could proceed, with pressure on both composers to get his version finished and produced first. Puccini won the race but there were a lot bumps along the way.

Puccini did not make life easy for his librettists. His previous opera, Manon Lescaut, had gone through no less than five writers with additional contributions from Puccini’s publisher and from the composer himself. When it was produced, no librettist at all was credited! For La Bohème, Puccini had turned to Luigi Illica to create a scenario and Giuseppe Giacosa to provide the poetic text. Adapting such a diffuse and episodic work for the stage was a challenge in itself. In addition, Puccini was difficult to satisfy and constantly requested changes, without being able to make it clear exactly what he wanted. During the two years-plus of composition, Illica, Giacosa and even Puccini at times threatened to dropout of the project. It was finally completed in December, 1895 and went into rehearsal for its premiere on February 1, 1896. The critical reception was mixed but audiences loved it and it quickly was picked up for production all over Italy and abroad. The fourth of our five Bohèmes quickly became the hit it has remained ever since

But what about Bohème No. 5? Even though Leoncavallo, as author of his own text, didn’t have to deal with librettists, he still finished second in the race. His version, which puts more focus on the characters of Musetta (a mezzo-soprano) and Marcello (the lead tenor part), was finally staged in 1897 with only modest success and it was quickly overshadowed by Puccini’s version. It is very rarely performed today.

The story doesn’t really end with only five Bohèmes. Murger’s material also inspired an operetta (Emmerich Kalman’s Das Veilchen von Montmartre), a zarzuela (Bohemios by Amadeo Vives), a major film (Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge) and, of course, a very popular musical, Jonathan Larson’s Rent, just to mention a few. Clearly Puccini was on to a good thing, even if taming it turned out to be a considerable challenge. Fortunately for us, he finally succeeded.

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