Ópera y Teatro musical

Origins of the Characters in Puccini's La Bohème

Maria Nockin

miércoles, 1 de diciembre de 1999
Puccini's La Bohème is based on the writings of Henri Murger (1822-1861), a French author who is best known for describing the day-to-day life endured by struggling artists in Paris during the 1840s. Murger was the son of a Parisian concierge and he grew up among the artists who were his father's tenants, one of whom is purported to have been the great singer, Luigi Lablache.The young Murger went to work as the messenger for a lawyer, but soon lost the position because he spent too much of his time chatting with his artist friends. Instead of finding another job, he joined a group of young men who met daily in the cheapest cafe to eat and drink the minimum amount while discussing poetry, philosophy, painting, music and the other arts.Murger began to write stories about his bohemian friends and these tales were serialized in a periodical called Le Corsaire, beginning in 1845. The four equally prominent characters in his stories were Rodolphe (Rodolfo in the opera), Marcel (Marcello), Alexandre Schaunard and Gustave Colline. In fact, Rodolphe is based on the real Henri Murger, and he describes this character as having a multicolored thicket of a beard complimented by very little hair on the top of his head, but, of course, in the opera he is more likely to be romanticized as a handsome tenor.Marcel is said to have had some of the personality traits of the painter, François Germain Léopold Tabar (1818-1869), who often spoke of his intention to paint the passage of the Hebrews through the Red Sea, but never actually put it on canvas. Murger describes Marcel's shabby clothing as being topped off by a strident green, hole-ridden coat which Musette, his coquettish lady friend, tried to darn at their first meeting.Schaunard, the musician, is modeled on Murger's friend, Alexandre Schanne, the son of a wealthy toy manufacturer who only became a bohemian for a time before resuming his bourgeois existence. He was gifted in music and painting but gave up both arts for a regular income. After Murger made bohemian life famous, he wrote his memoires, Souvenirs of Schaunard, which was published in 1887.Gustave Colline is a combination of two philosophers with whom Murger was acquainted: Jean Wallon, who was inordinately fond of his hazel-colored overcoat which always had its pockets stuffed with books, and Marc Trapadoux, who was the most serious minded of the group. Some years later Wallon's widow protested the Colline image, insisting that her late husband was a militant Christian who searched unceasingly for truth.There are several prototypes for Mimi: including Lucille Lovet, a fragile beauty who died of consumption during the period when Murger was actively writing, and Marie Virginie Vimal, the seamstress whom the author loved passionately.We know the most about the real Musette (Musetta in the opera), Marie-Christine Roux, because she was described by the writer, Champfleury, in his Adventures of Mademoiselle Mariette, as well as by Murger. A twenty-year-old artist's model with a melodious voice and a quick wit, she was said to accept only young and handsome lovers. After having saved some money, she made arrangements to retire to Algeria where she was to reside with her sister. In December of 1863 she sailed aboard the Atlas for North Africa. Unfortunately, the ship sank enroute, and the beautiful Marie-Christine drowned along with all the other passengers.The installments of Murger's Scènes de la Vie de Bohème were published in Le Corsaire and received a polite reception, but nothing more, until a clerk at the War Ministry, who was trying to become a dramatist, suggested turning them into a play. This young writer, Théodore Barrière, had already written several successful vaudevilles. He and Murger fashioned some of the characters and incidents from the Scenes into La Vie de Bohème, a play which scored a resounding triumph at its premiere on November 22, 1849, at the Théatre des Variétés in Paris. As might be expected, some major alterations had to be made in transforming the prose into drama. For example, in the Scenes it is Francine who loses her key in the dark and finds love in the process, but in the play this scene is given to Mimi, the girl who dies of consumption.On the evening of the play's premiere, one of the most important publishers in Paris, Michel Levy, treated both authors to an elaborate supper and offered Murger 500 gold francs to rework the stories from Le Corsaire into a novel, giving Levy all the publication rights. That was Murger's ticket to middle class living and he grabbed it! Within a week had he found lodging in a far more respectable section of Paris from which, as fate would have it, he never again wrote a memorable piece.Puccini's collaborators for the libretto were Luigi Illica (1857-1919), who wrote the libretto for Giordano's Andrea Chenier, and the more famous Giuseppe Giacosa (1847-1906), a respected poet and a prominent member of the Italian cultural world. Illica was to write the prose scenarios for the new opera and Giacosa was to be responsible for turning them into verses. The three men worked together on the Bohème libretto from 1893 to 1895 with many interruptions due to the composer's obligations to oversee productions of his previous opera, Manon Lescaut. They made numerous changes, including the elimination of an entire act in which Mimi borrows a dress from Musetta and dances with a viscount while Rodolfo looks on, but ultimately they achieved a true masterpiece of music and drama.Puccini and his librettists read the play and found most of it unusable. As a result they chose to construct their libretto from the novel, which by this time had been translated into Italian and published by Sonzogno, who was also the publisher of the works of Ruggiero Leoncavallo, best known for I Pagliacci. Both composers wrote operas called La Bohème, based on Murger's stories, but Puccini's work, which was performed first, has proven to be far more popular.La Bohème was written at a time when theatrical subjects were just beginning to include the common people. As a result of its common touch, it attracted a much wider audience than most previous operas. Puccini's hero is not a king or a noble, he is an impoverished young writer who loves a seamstress, making him a character with whom many of the members of the audience can empathize.It is hard to think of more than one or two seasons going by without a visit to those irrepressible bohemians who show us the beauty of both love and suffering, and with whom we celebrate Christmas Eve at the Cafe Momus.Bravo Murger! Bravo Illica and Giacosa! Bravissimo Puccini! You have given us a gift to be treasured forever!

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