Opera in quarto atti. Running Time: 2 hours 17 minutes.
Let’s celebrate my 400th opera review with something I have been meaning to do for over six years! I threw in a few jokes in this one to mark the occasion.
Probably one of the most glaring omissions from this site, perhaps now, after six years, that oversight has been corrected, with yet another massive Leoncavallo review. I wrote around 2000 words of this review before actually listening to the recording (the review itself is just over 4000 words, making it one of my top 10 longest), which is the 1981 Orfeo release, a winner of the Deutschen Schallplatten critics prize. Not bad for an opera generally derided as the “other one”. So let’s strap in and explore the Joan Fontaine of Boheme operas!
Puccini’s La Boheme is one of the top five most performed operas in the world, the most popular work of one of the top three most popular opera composers. In fact, it is so popular that Google includes an instant search result for the question “Why is La Boheme so popular?” because even it can not figure out exactly why. Not so much the Leoncavallo version. Generally, this has been attributed to the extremely different ways in which both composers went about setting their respective works (Puccini’s is seen as more balanced between comedic and tragic elements whereas Leoncavallo’s presents all of his comedy first, then slams the audience with two acts of tragedy at the end). Although Mimi is the soprano, Marcello is the tenor here and Rodolfo a baritone (few mention that Musetta is now a mezzo, or that she is actually the primary female character now, nor the added mezzo Eufemia (a girlfriend for Schaunard), or the addition of baritone Viscomte Paul, who steals Mimi away from Rodolfo while Musetta is having her furniture auctioned off, I will get into that). Another major difference is the expansion of the role of Schaunard, who is very clearly the musician among the four artists for Leoncavallo, something which Puccini obscures for no apparent reason.
There is truth in the accusation of imbalance, although the first two acts are longer than the last two acts, with the first act being only around 15 minutes shorter than both of the last acts combined, and longer than ANY of the four Puccini acts. Leoncavallo’s work is around half an hour longer than Puccini’s and was released a year later, by which time Puccini’s masterwork had conquered the planet. Yet Leoncavallo’s work has its fans, some even claiming that it is superior to the perhaps overtly beloved Puccini warhorse. One of the most striking features of the score is how abruptly the music shifts from comedy to tragedy, as if Leoncavallo is telling us that the comedic Bohemian life of the first two acts is just a facade, and that the tragedy of their lives is merely being veiled by fleeting happiness.
SETTING: Between Christmas 1837 and Christmas 1838. The first act is set at Cafe Momus where the Bohemians get into a fight with the owner because, as usual, they have no money to pay for anything. Eventually Musetta’s (mezzo-soprano) lover Barbemuche (bass) pays, but he leaves her before the second act and she has to auction all of her furniture, in the courtyard of her house, to pay off all of her debts. This results in a great multitude of Bohemians, who are eventually fought off by neighbors, during which time Mimi (soprano) is carried off by the Viscomte Paul (baritone). In act three, Mimi returns to Rodolfo (baritone) just as Musetta leaves Marcello (tenor) and although the former woman initially refuses to go with Musetta, the two men force both women out of their lives. The following Christmas, Mimi returns to Rodolfo on the brink of death. Musetta ends up selling her jewelry for fuel, and Mimi dies as the Christmas Midnight mass bells are heard outside.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: Cafe Momus, Christmas Eve. (42.5 minutes)
0: No, signor mio, cosi non puo durare The introduction * immediately presents us with an attractive, jovial, vaguely 19th century, minuet (?) theme in the woodwinds and upper strings and then we are off into a conversation between the cafe owner, Gaudenzio (tenor) and Schaunard about how the Bohemians use up his restaurant space, hardly ever order anything, and even rarely pay for anything (all to a reprise of this opening theme, which is a bit of an ear worm and represents the cafe proprietor). This immediately sets up the basic premise of the work: that the Bohemians are unreliable good-for-nothings who like to party. A random vagrant shows up, asking about the music lessons Schaunard has been advertising for to make a little money, but is booted out by Gaudenzio.
5: La macchina e soppressa Schaunard gets a brief gavotte-style arietta *, promising Gaudenzio that the Bohemians will provide him good business this evening! Almost immediately, Rodolfo and Marcello arrive and greet Gaudenzio and Schaunard. Eufemia also arrives, although the only thing she can say is Schaunard’s birth name before wrapping her arms around him. Colline finally shows up, expected to have money to cover the bill, but he has purchased multiple books. He also asks about Mimi, prompting Marcello to provide an impassioned response from Marcello about the imminent arrival of Musetta, who is fleeing her rich banker boyfriend that evening.
11: Oh qual beltade s’offre al guardo mio!/Bella donna, da questa millionari Marcello imitates the moment Raoul first sees Valentine in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots * when he first sees Musetta. This is the first Meyerbeer reference used in opera, and it is not the last. Given that the opera had premiered the year before this opera is set, the references to it are historically very logical. However, the fact that Marcello’s relationship with Musetta is not actually the primary force of the plot makes this slightly confusing. It is followed by a long cantabile by Schaunard to Musetta about all the various characters **
14: Musetta, svaria sulla bocca viva Mimi (ever the Tubercular coloratura soprano) sings a ravishing chanson which could easily have been Johann Strauss translated into Italian **. The gist of it is that Musetta searches for only one treasure in all the world: love. Marcello immediately suggests to her, before Musetta has even said a single word in the opera so far, that she and he search for her treasure together. They then all order various alcoholic beverages (Leoncavallo comes close to quoting the Magic Fire Music here, then later the prelude to Vasco de Gama). Barbemuche comes in and shouts at a waiter who bumped into him and orders a drink in the corner.
23: Mimi Pinson la biodinetta Musetta responds to demands for her own song, which is about Mimi *. It is a delicate fin-de-siecle piece, with a mild accompaniment, and mostly about how poor Mimi is (owning only one dress) and how funny her bonnet is. It is less than a minute, shockingly.
25, 30, 35: O Musetta, o gioconda e sorridente/…/Signorina Musette Marcello prompts a brief bit of magic ** a love duet with Musetta while a drunken Colline chimes about renaissance writers. This is followed by the revelation of the bill: 31 Francs 50! Rodolfo and Marcello try to convince Schaunard (the only one of them who isn’t at least slightly drunk since he focused on eating dinner) to negotiate with Gaudenzio (who returns to his theme from the beginning of the opera), this time with three kitchen servants armed with a ladle, a broom, and a spit. Schaunard quotes Act 3 of Les Huguenots * at this point “Ah, il Brando mio e il mio corraggio/Ah! mon epee et mon courage!” Just before Barbemuche intervenes on the ensuing battle taking place in the room and offers to pay the bill (as he wants to get to know the Bohemians and this is an easy way to introduce himself to them). The Bohemians refuse (Marcello even attacks him at first for slumming), until Schaunard offers a compromise: Barbemuche will play billiards against one of them to see which will pay the bill: Schaunard is chosen and goes into the next room with Barbemuche, prompting one more duet for the new lovers as Musetta pins a flower to Marcello’s lapel **. Schaunard comes out the winner, Barbemuche pays the bill, Gaudenzio is appeased, and everyone else exclaims joy for Christmas as the curtain falls.
ACT 2: Courtyard of Musetta’s home, rue de la Bayere, 15 April 1838. (36.5 minutes)
3, 11, 14: Io non ho che una povera/L’immenso Tesoro/Volo! Musetta is being thrown out of her apartment because her sugar daddy, the banker Alexis, has stopped paying the rent after she begged him to allow Marcello to join them in a menage a trois, and was refused. Leoncavallo sets up the act with a prelude (all of thirty seconds, and repeated during the opening action, it will be reused in Zaza). The first item of note is an impassioned aria for Marcello as he speaks of his poverty to Musetta ***. It is a sweeping tune, not altogether catchy, but powerful and dominates for a solid two and a half minutes. Schaunard comes on asking Marcello for money for his rent. Rodolfo shows up and gives 65 francs to Musetta for her rent (his pay for his most recent manuscript) presenting it to her in a brief arioso **. This is followed by a quartet (it becomes more obvious in the last minute) *** which is obviously based on the final fugue in Verdi’s Falstaff. It also includes a quotation from Der Fliegende Hollander in the horns if you can spot it.
19: Dei vent’anni fra l’ebbrezza l’avvenir The Hymn of the Bohemians *** in a climactic number as a large crowd floods into the courtyard. Schaunard gets his second big time to shine as he goes over his Four Principals of Bohemianism to the acclaim of those assembled (notice more Wagner quotations, it continues). Sandwiched into this scene is the first encounter between Mimi and Vicomte Paul, who is turned down because she doesn’t want to hurt Rodolfo.
25: Da quel suon soavemente Musetta embarks on yet another very obviously Strauss-influenced number with a sung waltz **. It is attractive and well constructed, if a bit parody.
29, 31, 32: Mimi! Parlate!/Alza l’occhio celeste la Bella/Ora chiama la guards! Another ensemble *, started off by Paul and Mimi again, but with the Bohemians in the background. Schaunard starts to play the piano and embarks on a mild Rossini-esque number * which wakes up the neighbors, none of whom are happy, but it brings up the act finale *** which has dozens of influences going on, from Donizetti, to Wagner (Meistersinger and Dutchman especially, Meyerbeer, and a piano in the background) as the tenants start throwing potatoes at the Bohemians.
ACT 3: Marcello’s Garret, October. (34 minutes)
0: The prelude quotes Tristan *, this will be obvious. Mimi has already left Rodolfo, and now Schaunard is also a “widower” (meaning Euphemia has left him). Musetta has not yet left Marcello, but he knows that the love has gone out of their relationship (the rose he gave her in act one has died, prompting an impassioned arioso from him).
7: E Destin! Now we enter the finest passages in the opera: Left alone, Musetta knows that she must leave Marcello because she can slum no longer! So she writes him a Dear John Letter. This long aria ***, which strongly builds up Musetta as the female lead in opposition to Mimi, is not a glitch, but it might be a reason for the lack of success for the opera.
13: Voglio Rodolfo! Mimi comes back, knowing that she can not resist his love even in the face of poverty in an explosive duet between the two women as Mimi tries to stop Musetta from making the same mistake she did and leave her wild, passionate Bohemian lover, which simply is not worth the financial incentives ***.
17: Sei proprio tu che hai scritto cio? But it is too late, Marcello sees the letter and is furious! More so with Musetta, but Mimi gets some of it as well, whom he physically attacks and accuses of trying to tempt Musetta away from him, something Musetta denies because it isn’t true ***. Marcello is no longer the gentle artist here, he is basically Canio and the intensity is at force nine for a solid twelve minutes as Rodolfo shows up as well (to yet another quotation from Dutchman). He upbraids Mimi for leaving him for Vicomte Paul, and violently throws her out after Marcello lies to him that Mimi has come to take Musetta to her next sugar daddy, as Mimi pathetically protests her innocence and that she has come to reconcile with Rodolfo. Marcello tells Musetta to go away, passively.
31: Musetta, o gioia della mia dimora! Leoncavallo ends his powerful act with a strong tenor aria for Marcello as he mourns the loss of Musetta *** and falls, weeping into what was her pillow on their bed. As much of a show stopper as Vesti la giubba.
ACT 4: Rodolfo’s Garret, Christmas Eve. (23.5 minutes)
1: Scuoti, o vento Rodolfo, alone, gets an aria with the darkness of a Wagnerian mono-cant *** as he recites a poem about a solution Death provides to the unhappy.
5: Brr! Che freddo! Marcello shows up, then Schaunard, who shivers from the snowy cold outside as he comes in * providing some slight comedy in the otherwise tragic final act. Just as one thinks the act is going to remain morose, Leoncavallo surprises us as the men remember the previous Christmas Eve at Cafe Momus (a musical switch-back occurs, although not as gratuitous as Puccini’s in act four of his Boheme).
10: Mimi! Mimi shows up ** with landlord Durand, a victim of Capitalism, expelled from hospital because of her lack of finances even though she is obviously dying of TB. Her appearance shocks all three men, but her condition can only garner sympathy from them (although Marcello tries to get one jab at her by asking why she isn’t with the Vicomte, to which she gently responds that he kicked her out the same day they last saw each other). The music has a distinctly sympathetic but deathly quality to it: Mimi has brought mortality with her, and Leoncavallo makes no excuses for it. She collapses and Rodolfo takes her in his arms. She complains about the extreme cold. Rodolfo asks Marcello to light a fire for Mimi and not under her.
17: Mimi Pinson la biondinetta The finale ** starts off with the slightly odd return of Musetta, singing her number about Mimi from act one. She immediately sends off her jewelry to buy fuel for the fire for Mimi, who eventually goes into a bit of “happy Tuberculosis” as dying approaches, she says good-bye to Rodolfo as the Christmas bells ring and she expires to tragic chords and brass from the orchestra. Fade out to curtain.
Perhaps the only real problem with Leoncavallo’s take on Henri Murger is that he is too faithful to the original text. Scenes de la vie de Boheme is made up of 21 short stories which have little connection to one another apart from the basic setting of the Latin Quarter (so named because it is the oldest, Roman founded, district of the city of Paris) and theme of Parisian Bohemian life in the 1830s. These were originally published as separate stories from March 1845 to May 1849 in the periodical magazine Le Corsaire, and then as a single volume in January 1851, by which time the stories had achieved success in play format. The main addition in 1851 were two chapters which wrapped up the loose ends in the other stories.
Out of these stories could be found a narrative of Talmudic density, which explains how the two operatic versions of the story take such extremely different ways of going about relaying the same situations, and why the film versions (ranging from 1916, 1926, 1935, 1945, and finally the musical Rent) are all vaguely based on the same story, but the scenario is so flexible that most people don’t even realize that 2001’s Moulin Rouge is actually based on this and not La Traviata (if they are thinking of either opera at all!). There are common characters in all or most versions (Mimi, Musette, Rudolphe, Marcel, Schaunard, and Colline), but if I hadn’t seen the 1926 Lillian Gish-John Gilbert MGM silent version as a teenager, I wouldn’t have known who or what Viscomte Paul was before coming upon this opera!
Leoncavallo was actually the first to plot out a setting for Boheme, but the moment he let Puccini know about his project, the writing was on the wall and only wailing and gnashing of teeth could follow in Giacomo’s wake. Although given a respectable premiere in Venice, Leoncavallo’s version quickly dropped out of sight, being given in the UK for the first time in 1970. However, it has been recorded at least six times, approximately once per decade, from 1958 to 2002. The best casting has probably been the 1981 Orfeo release, with Alan Titus, Franco Bonisolli, Bernd Weikl, Lucia Popp, and Alexandrina Milcheva in the key roles.
What Puccini sacrificed by being rather unfaithful to the original concept (Murger’s Mimi does not die in Rodolphe’s attic apartment, but rather in a hospital where her body is then dissected by medical students) he made up for with a romantically melodic score and a coherent love story which has never appeared to wane with audiences, along with a powerful characterization for the tragically Tubercular Mimi (always a winning formula with opera audiences). What Leoncavallo sacrificed by being faithful to Murger (apart from giving Mimi essentially the same pathetic attic ending) were the exact same reasons why Puccini ended up producing one of the top five opera warhorses. Puccini’s Mimi and Rodolfo are the Scarlet O’Hara and Rhett Butler of Italian opera, audiences want to watch them bang each other much less sing high Cs simultaneously. Musetta and Marcello are the comedic sidekicks for Puccini, but for Leoncavallo (and Murger) they are actually the ones closest to being protagonists (although really Murger’s work has no protagonist except perhaps the city of Paris itself). The lack of a coherent narrative, and the episodic nature of both the plot and the character development, are where Leoncavallo’s work are fatally flawed. Certainly regarding the rather butterscotch way Leoncavallo parodies Mimi’s death with sentimental Christmas bells, which truly must be the height of Italian 1890s melodrama and would eventually rear its ugly head in the Jeannette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy vehicles of the 1930s and 40s. At least with the general opera going public. Leoncavallo’s Mimi has less emotional build up than Puccini’s, Musetta being so central in the first three acts, only for everything to suddenly flip in act four where Musetta is almost making a cameo and Mimi is suddenly the center of everything. Although Leoncavallo quotes Wagner multiple times, it is Puccini who more successfully used leitmotifs, as it is hard to find them in Leoncavallo’s score (although they are present). Puccini’s last act is a switchback, Leoncavallo’s a tragedy with slightly odd structuring. That Mimi, and not Musetta or Rodolfo, gets the final words in the libretto can seem like a minor character is taking over things, only we have to remember that Mimi is, indeed, the prima donna soprano role.
Allan Atlas already devoted 28 pages in 1996 to the ways the Puccini and Leoncavallo treatments of Murger almost guaranteed the success of the former and the failure of the latter (including the decision by Puccini to delete the original third act of his libretto from Illica, which became Leoncavallo’s second act, because it shifted the focus of the work from Mimi and Rodolfo to Musetta and Marcello). Atlas’ article Mimi’s Death: Mourning in Puccini and Leoncavallo does a much better job of conveying the differences than what I am presenting here.
But how does Leoncavallo’s opera stand up, not against Puccini’s warhorse, but as an opera, on its own merits? Actually, not too badly. It is rather probable that, had he not been in a rivalry with Puccini here, Leoncavallo’s Boheme might well have ended up somewhere on the fringes of the standard rep, along with the likes of Adriana Lecouvreur or L’amico Fritz, probably as the second-best work of the otherwise one-hit-wonder composer of Pagliacci. A situation which would be similar to Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet and Mignon. Not a warhorse, but certainly strong enough to be in normal 100 Best Opera books, and certainly not its current reputation as an obscure alternate version to an apparently unfatigueable classic. The episodic nature of the opera, and even its radical and seemingly random tonal shifts would not have precluded it from success (Carmen anyone?). The score is well crafted, and, in spite of its relative obscurity, the opera is relatively well known for at least five arias, including a tenor aria which was recorded by Mario Lanza in the 1950s. What is more, although it has no Top-1o-Chart melodies, this isn’t Gounod’s Polyeucte either, and demonstrates a strong understanding of its 1830s setting and contains dozens of easily rememberable concepts one would expect to find in a better known work because it is usually the tell-tale sign of a great opera. The characterizations are not romantic as with Puccini, but rather a blending of comedic and tragic, and this does make the work slightly less accessible to popular audiences, but not to operatic audiences. So, in spite of the fact that it is not the undying warhorse that is Puccini’s Boheme, Leoncavallo’s Boheme would almost certainly have a stronger place in the pecking order had Puccini not decided to create his own treatment of the same story. Or got it on stage a year earlier.
In so many ways, this opera is probably the Exhibit A for operatic history that could have been and simply didn’t turn out. If anyone wants to question G-d after they die as to why Leoncavallo just couldn’t get a break after Pagliacci, it wouldn’t be a wasted question.
And now that I have probably upset everyone from Christians, to Puccini apologists, to classic movie fans, let us finally assess the end results: Leoncavallo, unlike Puccini, brings Mimi’s illness on gradually. For Puccini, it is a natural part of Mimi’s personality that she is already dying from TB before she even meets Rodolfo. For Leoncavallo, something else is at play. Mimi is not ill in acts one or two, and she only becomes obviously ill over the course of third acts. What is more, her illness is mostly due to negligent by the medical industry. She is discharged early because of her inability to pay (act four): she is ultimately a victim of Capitalism. This, perhaps more so than any other reason, except Puccini’s score, is probably the real reason why Leoncavallo’s work has not so much failed as remained outside the limelight for so long: it is anti-Capitalist. Leoncavallo’s score is far less modern than Puccini’s with a much less romantic nature but more willingness to borrow from the time period and other composers (Meyerbeer and Wagner in particular are strong influences).
Ultimately, neither opera really is actually better than the other, they are just polar opposites of each other, while using the same source material. If you want proto-20th century saccharine romance and the sentimentalization of TB-Mimi amid big tunes, go with Puccini. If you want an adult opera which is solidly within a mid to late 19th century musical world, and while, not having the big tunes, has a unique and more effecting dramatic power, and perhaps some narrative pacing issues and slightly odd character development, go with Leoncavallo.
Although the first act is a little weaker than the others (it being deliberately comedic), the power of the last two acts is enough to raise this to alpha status.
Dryden, Konrad Claude. Leoncavallo: Life and Works.Toronto: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2007. pp.229-244.
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