Some texts have an afterlife which is entirely reflective of the spirit in which they were written. One of these is Henri Murger’s Scènes de la Vie de Bohème (1851).
The other week I attended the New York Metropolitan Opera’s wonderful production of Puccini’s La Bohème, the world’s most popular opera, which premiered in 1896 in Turin. In preparation for the performance I decided to read Murger’s work (on which the libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa was based), even though every programme blurb is likely to tell you the adaptation is ‘loose’ at most.
|A scene from the Met's production|
Murger’s ‘novel’, which I read in translation, is more of a series of short stories set in Paris’ Latin Quarter. Characters recur, some with greater frequency than others, but timing is more nebulous and the plot hard to define. In the opera, Rodolph and Mimi’s relationship – its inception and conclusion – bookends the story. It is important in Murger too, but not central, and many of the features of Mimi’s story in the libretto (e.g. her profession and her death) are taken from an additional and minor character in the novel – Francine.
This is interesting. It suggests a dichotomisation of women in the opera – timid, initially chaste Mimi contrasted with worldly Musette – which is not the case in the text, where if anything the resourceful women trading on their beauty seem more sensible than their permanently broke and utterly deluded lovers. The stage world of great loves and tragedy is instead a constant comedy of bed-hopping and betrayal, where death is a constant feature, but life most always go on.
This production did a great job of transporting the audience to Paris – whether the city’s bustling streets, or a quiet garret, set against a darkening skyline. When the curtain falls you’re suddenly back in New York, bereft of the idiosyncratic Bohemian life of the Latin Quarter. Finishing the novel is a similar experience. Characters and a way of life, with which a succession of stories has made you oddly familiar, fade away. If nineteenth-century Paris were a destination I could choose to visit, I’d have no hesitation in heading back for more.