La Bohème: The Critics, the Public, and Me
Puccini’s La Bohème premiered February 1, 1896 in Turin, Italy at the Teatro Regio. It was not well received.
“Puccini cannot be forgiven for composing his music hurriedly and with very little effort to select and polish.....The work contains music that can delight but rarely move….Even the Finale of the opera, so intensely dramatic in situation, seems to me deficient in musical form and color...La Bohème, even as it leaves little impression on the minds of the audience, will leave no great trace upon the history of our lyric theater, and it will be well if the composer returns to the straight road of art, persuading himself that this has been a brief deviation,” said Carlo Bersezio, in La Stampa.
But, as a famous conductor once told me, “The critics will always have their opinion(s), what am I only concerned about? What the public has to say.”
And the public has a lot to say about Puccini’s La Bohème.
Puccini’s first three works were Le Villi, Edgar and the very successful Manon Lescaut. Those operas began to give Puccini the opportunity to say he wasn’t a ‘starving artist.’ But a starving artist he was. Early in his career while living in Milan, he experienced poverty very similar to the characters in La Bohème. His life during this time was often without basic necessities—clothes, food, and money to pay rent. In fact, Puccini described in his diary an evening when a single herring fed 4 people—an event that is very poignant in the 4th Act of La Bohème. In fact, Puccini once said "I lived that Bohème, when there wasn't yet any thought stirring in my brain of seeking the theme of an opera."
By the time La Bohème premiered however, he had paid off his debts, owned a country villa and was establishing himself among the artistic elite in Italy. It was probably the best vantage point to write an opera about the difficulties of being an artist in the early 19th century. La Bohème soon began to surpass Manon Lescaut in popularity and Puccini himself declared it a “splendid reception.” The librettists for La Bohème were Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. This was their first collaboration, and from this success the trio went on to work together on Tosca and Madame Butterfly, two of Puccini’s other great works.
Maybe the early criticism was there because the struggles and hardship revealed in La Bohème are too real, too vivid, too inescapable to embrace as one sits through the evening. But the starving artists brought to life in La Bohème are the exact reasons why it is so beloved. It is one of the highest-ranking operas ever to be performed, with 3,500 performances since the debut in Turin. The Metropolitan Opera in New York City performs La Bohème every single season.
La Bohème will always have a special place in my heart because it was one of the first leading roles that I had the privilege of performing. And as the saying goes, I do remember it like it was yesterday. It is not all warm fuzzies and flowers however. The music demands a lot from the singers and the interaction between the cast during the 1st and 4th Acts can be dangerous. We were staging the 1st Act entrance of Benoit and in our frantic “hiding” some things were tossed in my direction without me knowing and a book caught me squarely on the nose. No real damage done but it did not feel good.
A fellow colleague told me once, “If you don’t feel something while watching La Bohème you can just walk straight to morgue because you’re dead.” And I, of all people, know that opera can be polarizing. There are “elitist” personalities that will only look at an opera’s intellectual aspects, but for me, I will always look to see how well an opera is received by the public. There is no greater joy for a performer then to look out in the audience and see someone wipe away a tear or hear genuine laughter from what they see on stage. La Bohème can deliver both emotions fully and that’s why it is now a masterpiece.
By Adam Diegel
Artistic Director, Opera San Antonio