|Portrait of Giacomo Puccini circa 1900
photographer Mario Nunes Vais (1856–1932)
Today, an operatic world without Puccini’s La Bohème seems as unthinkable as a Christmas without The Nutcracker. The most often performed of the composer’s operas, and among the most popular works in the repertoire, it has attracted some of the greatest singers of all time (Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi, to name only two) to the juicy leading role of the impoverished, tubercular seamstress Mimì. La Bohème was one of the first operas to be recorded and has been staged in every way imaginable in all the world’s major houses. Hollywood has often plundered its music, most notably in a key romantic scene between Cher and Nicolas Cage in the 1987 romantic comedy Moonstruck. This touching tale of struggling Parisian artists even inspired a smash hit Broadway musical, Rent.
But the reviews of the premiere in Turin on February 1, 1896, did not seem to predict such enduring success. Local critic Carlo Bersezio predicted that La Bohème would not survive, a view shared by many other industry insiders. Audiences, however, loved the show, so much so that the initial production ran for 24 sold-out performances. This sharp divide between the negative critical and academic reception and the positive popular one has followed La Bohème (and most of Puccini’s other operas, for that matter) ever since. Composers, critics, and musicologists have repeatedly accused Puccini of pandering to lowbrow, middle-class taste and of shameless manipulation of his audience. “To some younger Italian contemporaries, the name Puccini seems to have assumed honorary status as a four-letter word,” Arthur Groos and Roger Parker write in their guide to La Bohème.
The anti-Puccini forces received powerful ammunition from the grumpy musicologist Joseph Kerman in his influential 1956 book Opera As Drama. Here, he dismisses Puccini’s operas as “second-rate stuff ” and famously condemns Tosca (completed four years after La Bohème) as “that shabby little shocker.” Take that, Giacomo.
So what explains this drastic divergence of views? In her book The Puccini Problem: Opera, Nationalism and Modernity, Alexandra Wilson observes that the explanation lies primarily in the political/cultural environment in Italy and Europe around the time of the opera’s premiere. Puccini (1858-1924) wrote his major operas during a period of considerable turmoil and social change. Italy had only recently (in 1870) been unified into a single nation, and Italian intellectuals and artists were struggling to define what Italian culture should be. For many of them, Puccini’s operas—especially La Bohème, with its French source and Parisian setting—weren’t “Italian” enough, and his musical style was dismissed as too “international” and “decadent.”
Even worse, his characters had a heroism deficit. It was generally acknowledged that Puccini’s female characters—especially Mimì and Tosca—upstaged his men, providing fuel for the oft-repeated claim that he was too “feminine” at a time when Italian culture was striving to become more masculine and nationalistic. To some, the characters of La Bohème were trivial and weak—pathetic losers. One critic even called them “invertebrates,” and others insinuated that Puccini was homosexual (he was not). Wilson links such objections to a rise in anti-feminist, misogynist attitudes in Italy at the time, which would eventually lead to the fascist nationalism of Mussolini.
Critics also relentlessly compared Puccini to the two operatic giants of the age—his Italian countryman Giuseppe Verdi on the one hand (who died in 1901) and the German Richard Wagner on the other. His operas didn’t have Verdi’s patriotism and strength, or Wagner’s musical complexity and depth, they complained. At a time when the Modernist movement was sweeping across Europe and Wagner’s operas were becoming better known in Italy, Puccini’s style seemed conservative and passé. Filippo Marinetti, strident leader of the Italian Futurist movement, attacked his operas as the equivalent of musical “junk food.”
But none of this intellectual verbiage stopped audiences from loving La Bohème. In fact, it likely encouraged them. The opera’s seductive blend of humanity and nostalgia, its poignant portrayal of tender first love, its very real and humble characters (so different from the remote kings, queens and gods populating many operas), and its glorious flood of symphonic and vocal lyricism—these features never fail to move and enlighten audiences. Today, as in the past, Puccini’s “passionate feeling for life” (as novelist Heinrich Mann put it) continues to seduce and fascinate.
Harlow Robinson is an author, lecturer, and the Matthews Distinguished University Professor of History at Northeastern University. His articles and reviews have appeared in The Boston Globe, The New York Times, Opera News, Symphony, and other publications.
This article has been reprinted from the fall issue of Coda, the magazine of Boston Lyric Opera. To read the magazine in full, please visit www.blo.org/coda.