The architecture of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème is as close to perfection as we have in opera. In this way, it ranks with Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro and Richard Strauss’s Elektra in its dramatic flow and unity of story and music. In one way, it is even superior: For different reasons, both Figaro and Elektra are usually performed with cuts, whereas La bohème is so concise and the roles so well balanced that any cuts would be unimaginable.
Even when compared with Puccini’s other operas, La bohème is more disciplined, elegant and accomplished. There is not a moment of what can be described as “filler” as there is, arguably, in Act III of Tosca and Act III of La fanciulla del West. As to the unity of story and music, the last act of Manon Lescaut is somewhat detached from the rest in both time and mood. And La rondine’s third act speaks a different and earlier musical language than the rest of the opera.
In La bohème we encounter none of these anomalies. The work is equal parts comedy and tragedy, completely credible dramatically, and as perfectly integrated musically as a Mozart-Da Ponte opera. The only other Puccini operas that come close to this concise drama are Madama Butterfly and Gianni Schicchi (the last opera in Il trittico). Schicchi, however, is a one-act comedy, part of a longer evening. Butterfly, while very well structured, falls a little short of La bohème’s effortless symmetry.
While the libretto obviously inspired him, Puccini’s mastery of his craft is also on display. For one thing, Puccini was an accomplished orchestrator. He maintained a clear personal style while making adjustments in his orchestration in much the same way that a painter chooses a somewhat different palette—and points of contrast—depending on the subject. La bohème is delicate and, with a large cast of characters, the composer leans relatively heavily on the woodwinds to supply many different timbres. While there is brass in La bohème, it is reserved for the most dramatic moments (like the end) or boisterous fun (like the festive opening of Act II). There is proportionally less brass than in Tosca, with its genuine villain and fatal violence.
For another, and notwithstanding its unmistakably Italian spirit, the construction of this Puccini opera in particular reflects the influence of the great Austro-German masters who wrote ever longer scenes without breaks for applause, scenes constructed of separate sections that nonetheless need to dovetail in such a manner that the seams between sections are imperceptible. Put another way, these composers worked on ever larger canvasses.
Like Wagner and Richard Strauss, therefore, Puccini is more careful to specify tempo, and tempo relationships, in La bohème than he is in his other operas. This is not something that should necessarily be at the top of the listener’s consciousness; but it is part of the sweep and seamlessness that we feel at the end of a good performance.
La bohème is Puccini’s most motive-rich opera. (Tosca comes in second.) While Puccini’s gift for melody and keen sense of drama are well accepted, his subtle use of motives is not nearly as universally recognized. This may be, in part, because his attention to motivic development was variable, both waxing and waning throughout his career. Nonetheless, Puccini’s use of motives, while not so as extensive or complex as that of Wagner, advances Italian opera beyond where Verdi took it. Indeed, Giacomo Puccini and Richard Strauss stand together after Richard Wagner in sophisticated use of motives in their operas. Puccini’s results are less complex, but this relative simplicity reflects Puccini’s taste more than any lack of skill. Few if any composers equaled the orchestral complexity of Strauss.
For example, in one melody assigned to Mimì, we have one of the opera’s most reprised motives. It is introduced by the clarinet before she sings a note in Act I, as she stands in the doorway of a neighbor whom she does not know with a spent candle in her hand. It is the foundation of her aria a little later, “Si, mi chiamano Mimì,” and it occurs too often to enumerate. The composer, working with something slow and delicate to begin with, gently alters the tempo and harmonies, giving us progressively more poignant renditions, most notably in her Act III and Act IV entrances.
In La bohème Puccini can toss around the smallest germ of a musical idea until he has fashioned something greater than the sum of its parts—as Brahms so often did. The vibrant and robust opening of the short second act, for instance, is built on four seeds that we first hear in Act I just as Rodolfo’s friends head out to the café leaving him alone. Later in Act II, Musetta’s motive is built from two fragments played by perky woodwinds beginning just before her entrance. The two fragments only form a recognizable melody after they are repeated separately over more than two dozen measures. (This motive is distinct from Musetta’s Act II aria, “Quando m’en vo,” which is also used motivically.)
For the record, if ever I am asked which single moment of schmaltz I would take to that proverbial desert island, it would surely be a passage that begins at roughly the middle of the Act IV orchestral interlude after their friends have finally left Mimì and Rodolfo alone. In spite of its brevity, the interlude successfully evokes the lovers’ yearning. It can be likened to a sketch by a very great painter; in a few moments, the composer encapsulates the tenderness and sadness of the situation and, indeed, of the entire opera. It begins with a startlingly slow reprise of Schaunard’s motive as he is the last to exit; and it incorporates other themes from earlier in the opera. At its conclusion, Mimì introduces a theme never before heard as she asks Rodolfo whether they are alone and admits she only pretended to be asleep waiting for everyone to go. We will hear this gentle evocation of Mimì’s tenderness and the playful intimacy between the two lovers at the end of the opera transformed into Rodolfo’s howl of grief.
The ending of La bohème is, in some ways, Puccini’s most successful at wrenching the listener’s heart. Madama Butterfly and Suor Angelica come close, but the grief builds up earlier in those works (both, interestingly, in connection with their heroines’ maternity). La bohème holds back its biggest wallop until the very end.