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La bohème

by Daniela Candillari, Principal Conductor


“Music can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.”

– Leonard Bernstein

The introduction to opera will very often happen through one of the following pieces: Carmen, La traviata, Le nozze di Figaro, and La bohème. All four offer a sort of familiarity with either the music, the characters, or perhaps even the stories. (For instance episode 3 of the show Mad Men was very aptly titled Marriage of Figaro, immediately making a strong connection between the series lead with a well known operatic character.) La bohème, which premiered on February 1, 1896, is not only one of the most known operas by Puccini and has inspired so much of modern culture (for example – the musical Rent by Jonathan Larsen, Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, Moonstruck by Norman Jewison), but it is also a masterpiece in composition, orchestration, and dramatic timing.

Based on Henry Murger’s novel Scènes de la vie de bohème, the opera paints an intimate portrait of the 19th century Parisian life through the eyes of four young artists living on the edge of poverty. Their shared experiences of love, ambition, despair, and camaraderie are at the core of the opera, creating a narrative that’s deeply relatable. The use of common characters navigating through familiar situations invites the audience into their lives, making them feel as if they are part of the story, sharing in the characters’ joys, sorrows, and dreams. This intimate approach to storytelling sets La bohème apart and it reminds us that extraordinary tales often reside in the most ordinary of lives.

Recently I read Puccini Without Excuses by William Berger and there was one sentence that particularly stuck with me. The author said that La bohème is filled with very memorable arias, but it is the music that happens in between the arias that make this opera so special. Here I wanted to focus and point out a few of these moments, which make the arias stand out and complete the picture.

The beginning alone is one of the most iconic openings to an opera. There is no overture, but instead Puccini starts the opera with a figure of 8th notes, played by the celli, basses and bassoons, every second measure is punctuated by trombones. Very quickly this figure rises, making its way through the orchestra – adding violins, violas, clarinets, and horns, followed by oboes, flutes, piccolo, and trumpets, and finally harp – from the lowest sounding instruments to the highest. The opening phrase takes 24 measures until it settles into the tonic – a harmonic home. Personally I think this is a moment Puccini wanted us to feel at home and settled in with the first four principal characters. After a lively and playful opening scene, with an additional comedic moment of the landlord Benoit entering the apartment (one can make a parallel between the importance of this character with Sacristan from Tosca), we get to the entrance of Mimì, a shy neighbor who will become Rodolfo’s love. The knock outside hints to a new layer of development and as Rodolfo asks Chi è la/Who is there? the strings enter very quietly in a quadruple piano dynamic, a dynamic color very unique to Puccini. Just as the beginning of the opera keeps us harmonically in suspense for a while until we settle into the tonic, the same is the case here: celli and basses sustain the root of the harmonic dominant, which gives us a feeling that the resolution and a harmonic arrival is about to happen. All the while, both clarinet and the strings are playing the melody that will later be used in Mimì’s aria and will become one of the most important motifs of the opera.

The conversation between Rodolfo and Mimì leads us to both of their arias, an introduction of themselves to each other. Both arias are unique in their structure, including the notion that they both start in a conversational tone before each of the characters decides to open up a bit more. In Mimì’s aria it is the transition into the final section that creates another delicate, yet at the same time passionate moment: viola is holding an A, before the full orchestra enters, again on an unexpected harmony. Horns are playing syncopations, a compositional tool that Puccini used very often to depict different emotional states of the character, and it is almost as if we can feel Mimì’s heart beating. That same rhythm will be quite dominantly used later in Act III in a duet between Mimì and Marcello.

Similar to the way that Mimì’s entrance is set up, the final Act I duet between Rodolfo and Mimì starts unexpectedly with timpani and bass drum supporting the melody in the flute, harp and horn. The melody we hear was previously introduced in Rodolfo’s aria, and here it shapes one of the most beautiful duets. At the peak of the duet, when both voices are lined up together in the melody, Puccini employs the entire orchestra to show the passion and excitement, and after a very brief musical climax, the orchestration thins out once again and both characters continue in a conversational tone. Act I finishes with one of the sweetest moments in music: as Rodolfo and Mimì are preparing to leave the apartment, they both sing the melody of Rodolfo’s aria, trading lines, and once again at the very end coming together in harmony.

Set in the busy Latin Quarter on Christmas Eve, Act II is musically the most multilayered one. It doesn’t only show different divisions of the chorus at the very opening and throughout the act, but Puccini has also set it up in such a way that we get small fragments of different conversations going on at the same time and he shifts our focus for these individual moments. The fanfare played by the trumpets opens the act, creating another iconic and memorable moment. This is the second time we hear the same melody, which was introduced for the first time in Act I during Schaunard’s scene in which he paints a very colorful picture of what Christmas Eve will look like. During this episode in Act I the orchestration is very light and transparent: celli and violas with flutes, clarinets, english horn, and harp – evoke almost a dreamlike quality. Here in Act II played by the trumpets and quickly joined in by the chorus, this musical motive becomes much more real and factual, and the music sets up the scene perfectly.

In Act II we are introduced to Musetta, who with her entrance immediately steals the spotlight. One of the most known arias from the opera is “Quando m’en vo”, which leads us into a dramatic twist (with Musetta and Marcello getting back together) and into a big finale, which further starts the coda of the act as two different types of music are layered over each other. While the orchestra is playing the remnants of Musetta’s aria, the offstage banda, comprised of 4 piccolos, 6 trumpets and 2 snare drums, is starting another type of fanfare initially very soft, heard from the distance. Very quickly all of the principals, the chorus, and the orchestra join in this final glorious moment.

Within Acts III and IV the focus once again shifts toward personal experiences and some of the similar musical ideas from previous acts are employed here. Notably the solo lines that were given to clarinet in Mimì’s entrance are once again highlighted in the duet between Mimì and Marcello at the beginning of Act III. This duet has a natural progression to a trio by bringing Rodolfo in, shortly after followed by a quartet between the two couples – Mimì with Rodolfo, and Marcello with Musetta. As we have heard in Act II, Puccini would shift the focus musically and dramatically to guide us towards different conversations that were moving the story ahead, and he similarly does so in this quartet juxtaposing the different textures of the orchestra to characterize the situations of the couple in focus. It is interesting pointing out that this quartet was based on “Sole e amore”, a song that Puccini wrote in 1888 and had repurposed it here in the opera.

After the premiere in 1896, conducted by Arturo Toscanini, Alfredo Colombani of the Corriere della Sera, wrote the following about the work:

“the improvement in workmanship is most noticeable. The melodic material displays the same origin, but here one finds it purified, made noble. Violence and brutality are diminished, perorations and bombastic phrases are less frequent, the search for effects is better camouflaged, and the music flows, swift and agile, now sprightly, now anguished…”

La bohème was the first opera I worked on when I joined the Indiana University Opera Theater. Since then I have done a number of productions of the piece in various roles (coach, chorus master, assistant conductor, and conductor). There was one particular production that has stuck with me since. Both the conductor and the stage director did an incredible job of making every moment on stage, be it playful, comedic, intimate, or heartbreaking, very real and honest. Very often I’ll go back and think about that particular process and every time I come to the same conclusion: through the specificity of his notation, Puccini has created an incredibly strong framework where every choice has to be revisited – every crescendo, every pause, every harmony, becomes a part of the narrative itself, resonating with listeners and letting them feel the depth of the story in a unique way.

Leadership support for La bohème comes from the Berges Family Foundation.

Daniela Candillari’s engagement is made possible with generous support from Kim & Tim Eberlein.