La Boheme, Puccini, synopsis

Online opera guide and synopsis to Puccini’s LA BOHÈME

This opera offers Puccini at his best. Every detail of this work is masterfully composed and the melodies are passionate and tender. The opera is one of the most performed of the entire opera repertoire.









Act I 

Act II


Act IV



Che gelida manina

Mi chiamano Mimi

O soave fanciulla (Love duet)

♪ Aranci Datteri (Street scene)

Quando m’em vo (Musette’s Waltz)

Ohè, là, le guardie! (Barrière d’enfer)

Mimi è tanto malata (Terzetto)

Donde lieta usci

Dunque: è proprio finita!… Addio, dolce svegliare

O, Mimi tu piu non torni!

Vecchia zimarra



Recording recommendation

♪ Recording recommendation





Torino, 1896


Luigi Illica, Giuseppe Giacosa based on the novel Scènes de la vie de bohème by Henri Murger.


Mimi, a seamstress (soprano)- Rodolfo, a poet (teno)- Marcello, a painter (baritone) - Colline, a philosopher (bass) - Schaunard, a musician (baritone) - Musette, coquette (soprano)


DECCA, Luciano Pavarotti, Mirella Freni and Rolando Panerai conducted by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic.














The rivalry with Leoncavallo

It is possible that Puccini first became aware of Murger’s “Scènes de la vie de bohème” in 1893 through his composer colleague Ruggiero Leoncavallo. When Puccini casually informed him a few months later that he was working on the setting of the “Bohème”, Leoncavallo was furious about the competition he was facing. Soon afterwards, one could read in the newspapers about the rivalry between the two composers, which was also the rivalry of the two competing publishers Ricordi and Sonzogno. In the end Puccini won 2-0 against his colleague, first because he wrote the more successful work and second because he had staged it a year earlier.



The difficult creation of the libretto

On the one hand, Puccini was always very interested in collaborating with librettists; on the other hand, he always knew how to assert his will. This led to the fact that the work on the libretto of “Bohème” brought everyone involved to the brink of nervous breakdown. The “Bohème” was the first collaboration of the trio Puccini-Illica-Giacosa. While the younger Luigi Illica was responsible for the plot and drama, the older Giuseppe Giacosa wrote the verses. It took them almost two years to complete the libretto, and the three of them met incessantly in lengthy discussions, and it was not uncommon for the publisher to have to intervene to appease them. Scenes were repeatedly rearranged, even an entire act, already completed was dropped again on Puccini’s instructions. Giacosa could no longer stand behind the poetry and demanded that Ricordi publish an unabridged version parallel to the libretto, which he flatly rejected. In 1895 Giacosa wrote in a letter to Ricordi that he would never work with Puccini again, which fortunately did not happen, since he was again responsible for the verses of Tosca and Butterfly.

The libretto of the “Bohème” was based on a serialized novel that appeared in a Parisian magazine in 1843. Henri Murger described the lives of the artists in the artists’ quarters on Montmartre and the Latin Quarter. The characters he described in the novel were for the most part real, even though Illica and Giacosa made adaptations for the opera, such as the addition of the character of Mimi, who does not appear in the original. Also, the protagonists in the original were called differently, probably because names such as “Jacques” were simply unsuitable for setting to music.

Travel tip for opera lovers: Visit original sites in Paris  (Click for link to TRAVEL-blogpost)

Batimen-Cafe-Momus Rue des pretres--Saint-Germain-l'Auxerrois Puccini Paris Travel Reisen Culture opera Tourism


The music

If one compares the “Bohème” with Puccini’s follow-up work “Tosca”, the temporal proximity is surprising. While Puccini’s music was never more veristic than in “Tosca”, it was never as late romantic as in “Bohème”. This is due to the fact that Puccini gave each of his operas its own characteristic sound, just as Verdi did with his “Tinta musicale”. What is the Tinta of “Bohème”? On the one hand, it is determined by the conversational tone of a through-composed opera, supported by a large number of reminiscent motifs woven into these scenes. You will find various examples of notes in the commentary section of the individual scenes. The motifs play an important role and are quoted again and again. Puccini was a close observer and he even gave things like the bonnet or the muff a motif of his own. The second element of the specific tinta is the “atmospheric” music, which describes the scenes of the plot in a characteristic way and sometimes even has the rank of “tone poems”. The two beginnings of the second act (street scene) and the third act (Barrière d’enfer) can be cited as particularly successful examples. Puccini’s orchestral language is masterful, and Verdi spoke appreciatively of Puccini’s orchestral power of speech. The drawing of scenes and details brought Puccini the (unjust) judgment of Tucholsky to be “the little man’s Verdi”.




The premiere took place on February 1, 1896 at the Teatro Regio in Turin and was conducted by the 28-year-old Arturo Toscanini. The work was only moderately successful. “Too ordinary” was the scenic judgment, “too unusual” the musical judgment. Six months later, the wind turned and the opera began its triumphal march.









In the cold attic

Synopsis: It is Christmas Eve in a garret in Paris. The writer Rodolfo and the painter Marcello are sitting hungrily in front of the cold oven. It is cold in the apartment and Rodolfo even burns one of his manuscripts.

The opera begins without an “overture” with the motif of the bohemians; its conciseness and recognizability make it excellently suited for being woven into the plot again and again.



We hear a second important theme at Rodolfo’s appearance.  The melody of “Nei cieli bigi” characterizes Rodolfo as a passionate and, with the accompaniment of the flutes, also tender person:


Questo mar rosso  –  Pavarotti / Panerai


Synopsis: The philosopher Colline comes home. He is in a bad mood, because he couldn’t pawn anything in the pawn shop, because it was closed on Christmas Eve. Only the musician Schaunard could earn something and brings wine, firewood and some money.

Abbasso, abbasso l’autor

Mimi appears with a candle in her hand

Synopsis: So they decide to spend Christmas Eve at Café Momus. They are interrupted by their landlord Benoit, who is reminding them of the long overdue rent. They get rid of him and go to the café. Only Rodolfo is left behind because he still has to finish an article. There is a knock at the door. It is Mimi, the seamstress from the apartment next door. She asks for a light for the extinguished candle. He gives her fire for her candle and their hands touch … Mimi feels weak and Rodolfo takes care of her. They both tell about their lives and their dreams. Rodolfo starts and tells about himself, the poet, the millionaire of dreams.

When Rodolfo lights Mimi’s candle he feels her cold hands. The aria “Che gelida manina” begins pianissimo and dolcissimo and the first part ends with a beautiful rallentando when Rodolfo points to the shining moon that shimmers romantically into the room (“e qui la luna”). In the second part Rodolfo describes himself as a poet and poor artist and in the third part he sings about the two beautiful eyes of Mimi, which appeared to his delight. At this point we hear the love motif for the first time:


Infinitely romantic is the famous final sequence with the high C (“Ma il furto non m’accora, poiché, poichè v’ha preso stanza, la speranza”).

We want to listen to this great moment in two great recordings.

We start with Pavarotti. Many experts consider him the best Rodolfo in the history of recording. In the words of Kesting: “Absolutely outstanding, also and especially in terms of acting, Pavarotti presents himself as Rodolfo under Karajan. It is one of the rare vocal portraits that makes the figure visible. In no other recording – apart from ‘La fille du Régiment’ – has he sung more freely and loosely, in none with a richer color palette.

Che gelida manina (1)  –  Pavarotti/Karajan


The next Rodolfo is Jussi Björling. Again in the words of Kesting: “No one else has sung the music of the first act more brightly and tenderly, and that of the fourth act more restrainedly and elegantly than the Swede.

Che gelida manina (2)  –  Björling/Beecham

Mi chiamano Mimi – another great aria

Synopsis: Also Mimi introduces herself. She is a seamstress. She leads an undemanding life, her heart is warmed by small things.

In this aria Puccini portrays Mimi at the beginning with very simple means. Thus her text at her first performance remains surprisingly unpoetic at first (“My name is Mimi…once I was called Lucia; I am industrious and cook my own food”) and is composed in simple harmonies. Mimi recognizes her feelings for Rodolfo. Suddenly the lyrics become poetic (“Ma quando vien lo sgelo” – “But it is beginning to thaw…”) and the music opens up to Mimi’s motif, which we will hear many more times, one of Puccini’s great musical inspirations:


This piece is what Puccini called a “pezzo forte” – a number he knew would have an effect.

Naturally, this aria was recorded by many great singers. Reason enough to choose three great recordings for you.

Let’s start with perhaps the greatest one, that of Renata Tebaldi. Tebaldi was not a great actress. This was partly due to polio that she suffered at the age of three, which brought with it a certain immobility. All the more she had to rely on her vocal abilities. And they were excellent. “In the rich unfolding of the heights, she had no equal after the war.” (Kesting). Toscanini is said to have even called her voice (the correctness of this statement is disputed) “the voice of an angel”.

Mi chiamano Mimi (1)  –  Tebaldi


The next picture is by Anna Netrebko. Mimi belongs(s) to her absolute shining roles and she is probably unrivaled in her generation.

Mi chiamano Mimi (2)  –  Netrebko


In the last recording we hear Magda Olivero. Kesting: “Few recordings of Mimi’s ‘Mi chiamano Mimi’ have more iridescent colors, more light and shadow, more gestures.

Mi chiamano Mimi (3)  –  Olivero

«O soave fanciulla» – a great love duet

Synopsis: In the magic of the moonlight shimmering into the attic apartment, the two confess their love to each other and they make their way to Café Momus.

A wonderful love duet unfolds. See “O soave fanciulla” in the filmed version with Renata Tebaldi and Jussi Björling, opera can not be more emotional.

O soave fanciulla (1)  –  Björling / Tebaldi


The duet in a second recording from the magnificent Karajan recording with Luciano Pavarotti and Mirella Freni. As chance would have it, Freni grew up in the same town as Pavarotti, and she is also his contemporary. Thus the two know each other since childhood and according to Pavarotti “she was his milk sister, with whom he had already done everything except amore”.

O soave fanciulla (2)  –  Pavarotti / Freni


Finally we hear a third version with the famous high pianissimo and dolcissimo tones of the Caballé (listen to the end!) in a recording with the duet partner Plácido Domingo.

O soave fanciulla (3)  –  Domingo / Caballé







Synopsis: There is a lot going on in front of Café Momus. Rodolfo buys a bonnet for Mimi from the toy salesman and introduces her to his friends who are already celebrating wildly.

It is an everyday scene that has been orchestrated in an incredibly colorful way and composed with many loving details. The model for this colorful street scene is said to have been the beginning of the fourth act of Carmen.

Aranci, Datteri – Karajan

The famous waltz of Musetta

Synopsis: Musette, an old friend of Marcello, has arrived at Momus, accompanied by her rich lover. When she sees Marcello, she is enflamed anew and bewitches him. To attract the attention of her former lover, she pulls out all the stops. She has broken a plate, snarled at the waiter and behaves like a cantankerous woman. Now she has the attention and she gives the elegant, charming lady.

Puccini had a clear idea of how to interpret this piece. He wrote down more than 20 notes for the singer in the score, which must always create new colors and tempi.

In the next piece, note how Anna Netrebko sings the passage “E tu sai che memori ti struggi” (“You who still glows in memory”) at about 1:45, seductively reminding him of past nights of love.

Quando m’em vo  –  Netrebko  


Synopsis: Musetta sends her rich lover away. When he returns to the restaurant, the cheerful company is already gone and he has to pay the bill.






The impressionistic tone painting of the third act

Synopsis: It is a cold February morning. Musetta and Marcello live on the outskirts of Paris, near the Barrière d’enfer.

An exquisite part of this opera is Puccini’s tone painting description of the atmosphere of this winter morning. During 144 bars Puccini describes this scene with sound painting effects such as xylophone and harp or with “Col dorso del arco” effects (notes struck with the wood of the violin bow). This scene appears almost impressionistic and was very unusual for his contemporaries, which sometimes led to spiteful comments. It begins with the hollow fifths of the violins and harps, describing the light snowfall and desolation of this winter morning. In the distance, one recognizes the melody of Musette’s waltz, which accompanies the last night owls home.

Ohè, là, le guardie! –  Karajan



The terzetto “Mimi è tanto malata”

Synopsis: Marcello and Musetta make their way through life together, but quarrel more often. Rodolfo and Mimi have separated this night. Rodolfo is constantly jealous. Mimi is unhappy and terminally ill. On this cold February day Mimi visits Marcello at work and wants to ask him for advice. Marcello, too, has made his way to Marcello. When Mimi sees him, she hides.

Marcello. Finalmente


Synopsis: From her hiding place she hears Rodolfo speaking to Marcello. He tells about his jealousy. But he must admit that he still loves her, but there is something that worries him.

We hear passionate motives of the first act, but the mood is kept in a minor key.

Mimi è una Civetta – Villazon


Synopsis: Mimi is terminally ill and the unheated room makes her condition worse. She needs to find a rich friend who can support her.

This passage can be called a typical Puccini scene. Starting with a recitative on only two notes, a passionate cantilena unfolds, which then turns into a trio.

Mimi è tanto malata – Björling / de los Angeles / Merrill

The second great aria of Mimi

Synopsis: A cough gives Mimi away. She comes out. She too sees no way out and surrenders to her fate. She wants to return to solitude and asks Rodolfo to take care of her belongings.

The aria overwhelms the listener with the many reminiscences of the first act. The quoted themes show us how Mimì already lives in her memories. Only in the last section of this aria does the voice rise in a passionate rebellion. She remembers the bonnet that Marcello had bought for her in front of Café Momus and the melody becomes her farewell motif:


Listen to Renata Tebaldi in another captivating recording. Flute and violin surround her voice and give the scene an outrageous glow. Even for little things like “wrap all these things in an apron and hand them over to the porter” Puccini composed a soulful music, which Tebaldi interprets convincingly with great artistry.

Donde lieta usci  –  Tebaldi


The next recording with Maria Callas.

Donde lieta usci  –  Callas


Once again Angela Gheorghiu in an impressive television recording

Donde lieta usci  –  Gheorghiu


Synopsis: Wistfully, the two remember their times together, without bitterness only with sadness and melancholy. Besides, Musetta and Marcello quarrel.

The tender duet is accompanied by chamber music and lets the passions revive once again, against the background of the quarrelsome singing of Musetta and Marcello. At the end the singers are accompanied by a painfully beautiful solo violin and chimes and the music disappears into nothingness.

Dunque: è proprio finita!… Addio, dolce svegliare (1)  –  Pavarotti / Freni







The nostalgic duet of Rodolfo and Marcello

Synopsis: Months later, Marcello and Rodolfo pursue their work in the attic. They haven’t heard anything from Musetta or Mimi for a long time and nostalgically follow their thoughts.

Puccini composed a touching duet of the two male voices. With their love, both have lost also their light-heartedness. Nostalgically, Rodolfo holds the hood in his hand as if it were Mimi.

Robert Merrill and Jussi Björling formed a dream constellation that went down in history as one of the most famous tenor-baritone duos. Also private friends, they have sung together in many opera recordings. Robert Merrill’s voice is “a baritone of great sonority, the timbre is rich and shimmers in many colors” (Kesting). It complements in an ideal way the radiant and painful tenor voice of Jussi Björling.

O, Mimi tu piu non torni!  –  Björling / Merrill


Synopsis: Colline and Schaunard enter and bring something simple to eat. A little later Musetta bursts into the room with the terminally ill Mimi in her arms. Mimi wanted to see Rodolfo one last time, but she couldn’t make the stairs on her own.

Musetta appears with a tritone announcing the coming disaster. Again we hear many motives and allusions to the first movement.

C’è Mimi – Callas / di Stefano / Panerai

La Bohème – the opera of little things

Synopsis: Everyone leaves the apartment to sell their most valuable belongings to buy medicine. Colline is even willing to sell his coat at the pawnbroker.

“La Bohème” is the opera of trifles, lovingly portraying tiny objects and phenomena. (e.g. the muff, the stove, the cap or the coat of Colline). Each of these objects is linked to its own musical motif. Listen to one of these little things, namely the aria about the tattered coat that Colline says goodbye to. He has no love story, so he gives his feelings to a torn jacket.

Listen to the aria in the interpretation by Ezio Pinza (1892-1957), according to Kesting “the richest bass voice of all. It not only flowed dark-sonorously, but possessed a shimmering, beautiful sound quality and great brilliance.”

Vecchia zimarra  –  Pinza

The death scene

Synopsis: Everyone leaves the apartment to sell their most valuable belongings and buy medicine. Only Rodolfo and Mimi remain in the apartment. Mimi sings one last time about her love for Rodolfo. When the friends return, Mimi can still be happy about the presents. A little later she is dead.

When Mimi holds the muff in her hands, we hear the love melody for the last time. A sound of the trombones lets us foresee death. After the prayer of Musetta, Rodolfo realizes her death. With trombone sounds and the famous last cries of Rodolfo the opera ends: “Mimi! Mimi!”.

See the finale in the production with Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon Rarely has an opera death happened so undramatically and yet so sensitively as in this opera.

Finale  –  Netrebko / Villazon



Recording recommendation

DECCA with Luciano Pavarotti, Mirella Freni and Rolando Panerai conducted by Herbert von Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker.




Peter Lutz, Opera-inside, the online opera guide to LA BOHÈME by Giacomo Puccini.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *