Two librettists, unsung heroes of Puccini’s La Bohème

2018.11.16 | By Gregory Nagy and Martha Cowan

§0. This essay is a kind of dialogue between Martha Cowan and me. Paragraph §2, subdivided into §2a §2b §2c… all the way through §2k, is by MC, while paragraphs §0 §1 §3 are by me, GN. Our dialogue centers on the two writers credited with the libretto for the music of Giacomo Puccini in his opera La Bohème, first performed in Torino, 1896. The librettists were Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa.

Puccini, flanked by his two librettists, Giacosa (l) and Illica (r).
Puccini, flanked by his two librettists, Giacosa (l) and Illica (r). Image via WIkimiedia Commons.


§1. In the posting GN 2018.11.09 in Classical Inquiries, I had argued that these two librettists, together with the composer, had created a most remarkable fusion of poetry and music—here I speak of music as understood in modernity, where rhythm and melody can be viewed separately from the wording of a song. Now in §1, I pick up on that argumentation, linking it with an essay that will be posted by Martha Cowan in a forthcoming issue of Classical Inquiries. Then, in §2a–k here, MC gives a preview of one aspect of that essay, where she shows that the love story of Rodolfo and Mimì in Puccini’s La Bohème does not match all that closely the romantic pairings to be found in the prose work that forms the basis for the overall plot of the opera. That prose work is Scènes de la vie de bohème, 1851, by Henry Murger, first translated into Italian in 1890. Rather, the love story in the opera is mostly the creation of the librettists Illica and Giacosa. After §2, in §3 of the “dialogue” here, I will invite further thoughts about the creative dynamic between libretto and music in opera.

§2a–k, by Martha Cowan 2016.11.16

(In these remarks I will use the Italian names of the operatic characters, although of course in the French Scènes de la vie de bohème, the familiar characters are Rodolphe, Marcel, Musette, and… Mimi.)

§2a. Before we delve into the poetry and drama of the libretto, some background to the source is necessary in order to address the poetic and dramatic contributions of the librettists to the final configurations of the operatic texts as they are to be sung.

Maria Kuznetsova as Mimí.
Maria Kuznetsova as Mimì. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

§2b. In brief, the story of La Bohème is based upon a set of stories by the French writer Henry Murger (1822–1861). Puccini and his librettists for La Bohème—Luigi Illica (1857–1919) and Giuseppe Giacosa (1847–1906)—based their work upon an Italian translation of the stories that was published in 1890.

§2c. In virtually every set of program notes to be found even today, and in the explanation the librettists themselves give of their own creative process, the assumption is made that the Murger ‘book’ is a novel. Giacosa and Illica even put forward the opinion that it is a very ‘modern’ and fragmented novel, as if its fitful story-line were due to its forward-looking style. The truth is that the book is not a novel. Murger, himself an impecunious ‘Bohemian’ writer in Paris in the mid-19th century, wrote some 20 stories over a five-year period, published in a minor magazine, trying to make some kind of a living from his writing. He was not very successful, but his stories were more or less about himself and his friends—other unsuccessful artists and their feminine love-interests, embodying the Parisian ‘Bohemian’ life. And, later on, other acquaintances of his filled in some details of the ‘real’ persons who populated his stories.

§2d. If it had not been for the playwright Théodore Barrière (1823–1877)—and we are noting a double change of genre here, from loosely-related magazine stories to a play set in a kind of musical theatre-piece—perhaps the stories, and the characters who lived within them, would indeed have ‘died’ in obscurity. Barrière approached Murger with the idea that the material would make a great play. He was right, although the co-produced ‘play’ that ended up being such a success in 1849 was almost what we would call a ‘musical’—full of songs and choruses. Incidentally, there were many elements in the play besides the music that did not exist in the stories.

§2e. Because of the popularity of the musical play, Murger was later able to publish in 1851 a volume of the original magazine pieces, with the different stories labeled ‘chapters’, as if it were indeed a novel. It is the translation of that volume into Italian, 1890, that provided the source material for Illica and Giacosa—as also of course for Puccini. Also to be noted is the input from the publisher, Giulio Ricordi (1840–1912). But I need to emphasize that in no way could the ‘book’ be read as a kind of Dickensian serialization of a novel.

§2f. As the librettists note, there is almost no consistency in the narrative, although some of the same characters appear and reappear. However, they are often described differently: A young girl called Mimì, for example, a recurring character or at least a figure with the name Mimì who is prominent in several stories, is given varying ages upon her first meeting with Rodolfo, in different short stories or ‘chapters’. The course of their relationship differs in description and chronology—and Rodolfo/Murger has a first meeting with a girl called Mimì, and with other young women as well, more than once throughout the course of the five years of magazine stories.

§2g. Let us then jump to the meeting of ‘our’ Rodolfo with ‘our’ Mimì, a treasured moment in the lives of millions of opera-goers. The camaraderie among the Bohemians, and their cheerful acceptance of Mimì as well as other friends and lovers, are certainly drawn from Murger’s stories. However, the Mimì of the stories, who may have been based upon a mistress of Murger’s, is not at all a truly transcendent figure. Yes, she is young and lovely; yes, she is pale and delicate; and yes, she is poor, ill-educated, and unwell. But, although it is stated at one point—even before his first meeting with Mimì—that Rodolfo believes in love more than his colleagues do, and although the narrative is often sympathetic to the poor little creature Mimì, their attraction seems visceral and otherwise inexplicable, so that their spats, and spates of reunion, emphasize those qualities in their relationship. There is moreover no sense that she understands his writing, or that he understands her thoughts.

§2h. Upon reading the stories, in search of at least the spirit of the beloved operatic personas, toward the end of the book one suddenly comes upon a ‘chapter’—a self-contained story—about characters one has never seen before: Jacques and Francine. This is a story about truly innocent and faithful lovers, still in a Bohemian milieu—the man a poverty-stricken sculptor, the young woman a seamstress. She is aware that she is dying and that they have little time together, but they are devoted to one another. They meet in the familiar way everyone will recognize, with an unlit candle and a lost key, and any opera-lover will have already noticed that the title of the chapter—or story—is ‘Francine’s Muff’.

Costumer’s sketch of Mimí in Act I, for the premiere production.
Costumer’s sketch of Mimì in Act I, for the premiere production. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

§2i. As noted already, the original (1896) edition of the score of La Bohème includes a Preface provided by the librettists themselves. Clearly they had made it to Chapter 18 of Murger’s ‘novel’ and had found what they had felt was missing from their narrative, as well as from the character of their Mimì, in their previous reading up to that point. In the Preface Illica and Giacosa discuss the difficulties of setting the ‘novel’, coming right out and stating that they decided they must fuse Mimì and Francine into one person.

§2j. I am nearing the conclusion to my response. My preliminary foray into the discussion of flowers and poets is that I feel it is essential to the tale that Mimì is a grisette, a craftsperson who in the case of Puccini’s first-act Mimì embroiders lilies and roses onto fabric. In the stories, Mimì and the other young girls labor in many blossom- and needlework-related occupations, as flower-garland-makers or dyers, as well as embroiderers. They all can cut out and sew their own clothing, even on a deadline. In this Bohemian life the females are executing skilled handiwork and engaging in artifice, which approaches the essence of art itself, and makes them artisans—or even on the cusp of being artists themselves. As for the men, they are by definition on their way to becoming artists. They are still students of art, or on the verge of being proficient or learned, but not yet fully fledged artists or scholars. Rodolfo thinks of himself as a poet but has to write articles for fashion periodicals to make ends meet—just as his creator, Murger, wrote the somewhat racy magazine stories that have given us Mimì, Rodolfo, Marcello, Musetta, and the others.

§2k. In our contemplation of artistry, the intersection of poetry and embroidery in the pre-Puccini world brings together these liminally artistic figures, masculine and feminine, in the rôles assigned to them by the economy of their era. It was for Puccini, Giacosa, Illica, and Ricordi to bring these figures, trapped in their bleak circumstances, into a more sympathetic realm, and to transform Mimì into ‘poetry incarnate’—the poet’s song from the very beginning, when she is first introduced, to the last calling out of her name.

Back to GN 2018.11.16…

§3. On the strength of what has been argued §2a–k here by MC 2018.11.16, I add this brief follow-up. In the arias that the lovers Rodolfo and Mimì sing to and about each other as analyzed by GN 2018.11.09, we can now see that the chemistry, as it were, of the love that catches fire in the singing of this couple can be traced back primarily to the poetic virtuosity of the libretto, not to the content of the prose source for the story that is retold in the opera. In terms of this line of reasoning, then, the unsung heroes, as it were, of the opera are the librettists Illica and Giacosa. But to say this much is not to take anything away from the sung heroine, Mimì herself.