Since its 1896 premiere, Bohème audiences have spent countless hours laughing, cheering and crying with its beloved characters. And yet what makes the phenomenon of the opera’s enduring popularity so interesting is the fact that we care so much about characters we know so little about. In Bohème’s libretto you will not find any long Verdian choruses giving back-story or characters stopping to “tell the story all over again.” We are given several hints about the characters’ past life but these move rapidly by as the opera progresses to its tragic end.
So who are these Bohemians scratching out a living in the garret? The answers to these – and many other — questions about our Bohemians can be found in the original source for Bohème’s libretto – Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de Bohème, a story cycle published in weekly instalments in the literary magazine Le Corsaire.
For the stories in Scènes, Murger drew upon his personal experiences and recollections growing up with artists and writers in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Given the autobiographical nature of the stories, it’s not surprising that Murger based one the main characters on himself: the starving writer Rudolphe (Rodolfo in the opera). Like Rodolfo, Murger had first-hand experience of poverty: on one occasion, he had to receive a theatre producer in bed, since he had loaned his only pair of trousers to a friend for a job interview.
Our painter, Marcello, is actually a composite of Champfleury, a writer Murger had shared rooms with, and Tabar, an artist who was forced to abandon a painting about the crossing of the Red Sea as he could not afford to pay the models and costumes he needed to sketch the scene. At the start of La bohème, we hear Marcello exclaim:
Questo “Mar Rosso” mi ammollisce e mi assidera
Come se addosso mi piovesse in stille.
This “Red Sea” of mine makes me feel cold and numb
As if it were pouring over me.
What of Bohème’s heroine, Mimì? She too is a composite character mainly drawn from a girl Murger knew named Lucile (we now perhaps see the reason for “Mi chiamano Mimì, ma il mio nome è Lucia”, “They call me Mimì, but my real name is Lucia”). Murgers Mimì is small and delicate, but also possessed of a “savage brutality” and “profound egoism”. Her attraction to Rodolfo is definitely not a gooey-eyed strong one. Perhaps in mentioning Mimì’s real name in the libretto, Puccini is hinting at the character’s darker side?
In 1851, Scènes was published in novel form and the edition quickly sold 70,000 copies. This led to it being adapted for the stage by the Parisian dramatist Theodore Barrière, who decided to focus on the relationship between Mimì and Rodolfo, retaining Marcello and Musetta as secondary characters and reducing the number and importance of the other Bohemians. This same format was used by La bohème’s librettists Giacosa and Illica when structuring the opera.
So here we have the real Bohemians. Murger’s original novel is not easy to find in bookshops; digital copies are available on Amazon and free of charge on Project Gutenberg (in French and English). ANDREW HIGGINS