In the Wings

Backstage glimpses with Boston Lyric Opera

Get to Know La Bohème

Sep 22, 2015 12:14:00 PM
By BLO Staff

Background information by John Conklin, Artistic Advisor


La Bohème premiered in 1896, in Turin at the Teatro Regio, conducted by the young Arturo Toscanini. In 1946, fifty years after that premiere, Toscanini would conduct a radio performance with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, featuring Jan Peerce, Licia Albanese, and Robert Merrill, which has been issued on CD by RCA Records.

•    First outside Italy: 1896, at the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires
•    Alexandria, Lisbon, and Moscow: 1897
•    England: 1897, in Manchester, by the Carl Rosa Opera Company, supervised by Puccini himself and sung in English
•    United States: 1897, in Los Angeles (who would have guessed?!), also by the Carl Rosa Opera Company
•    France: 1898, at the Opéra Comique
•    Austria: 1903, at the Vienna State Opera, conducted by Gustav Mahler (who was not a big fan of Puccini...he favored the Leoncavallo Bohème—see below)
•    The first production at the Salzburg Festival did not occur until 2012 (snobs!)
Everywhere else, the opera was quick to gain international popularity, which it has held ever since.

La Bohème’s source material was a novel, published in 1851, titled Scènes de la Vie de Bohème, by Henri Murger (1822–1861). Not a standard novel, it is rather a collection of loosely related stories, all set in the Latin Quarter in the Paris of the 1840s and drawn from Murger’s own experiences as a desperately poor writer. It was made into a play by Murger and Théodore Barrière, and it is from this version that Puccini’s libretto is chiefly derived.


The composer Leoncavallo

The Italian composer Ruggero Leoncavallo—a quite prolific opera composer now best known for Pagliacci—had begun to work on a setting of the Murger story when he found out that Puccini was circling around the same subject. He alerted the press and, after some questionable maneuvers by Puccini and his publisher, Puccini obtained the rights. Leoncavallo went on to write his version, which premiered in 1897. It is sometimes still produced and is not without merit, but inevitably suffers in comparison with Puccini’s masterpiece. Bad feelings endured...from then on, Puccini referred to Leoncavallo (”lion-horse”) as “Leonasino” (“lion-ass”).

In 1957, widow of Luigi Illica, one of La Bohème’s librettists, died, and her husband’s papers were given to the Parma Museum. Among them was a full libretto, which revealed that the librettists has prepared an act which Puccini didn’t use. It occurs between the Momus Act and Act 3, and shows the meeting of Mimì and the Viscount, which causes Rodolfo’s jealousy that he refers to in Act 3. Leoncavallo’s opera includes this scene.

•    RENT:  A 1996 musical by Jonathan Larson is based on La Bohème. Here, the lovers, Roger and Mimi, are faced with AIDS and progress through the action with songs inspired by the opera such as “Light My Candle.”

The cast recoding of Luhrmann's La Bohème

•    In 2002, Baz Luhrmann staged a version of La Bohème on Broadway based on his production for Opera Australia. It played eight performances a week, so there was multiple castings of the principals (including Jesus Garcia, who is singing Rodolfo in the BLO production this Season). His film Moulin Rouge (2001) based part of its plot on the original story.

•    There is a silent film from 1926 with Lillian Gish and John Gilbert, as well as other less well known film versions.

Topics: 2015/16 Season, la boheme, Puccini, BohemeBLO

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