La Bohème is a towering classic of the opera world, but what is it about? Blind ambition, doomed romance and consumption. Has it all, really.
Puccini’s La Bohème, set in Bohemian Paris in the 1830s, premièred in 1896 and has been a staple with opera companies the world over ever since.
Today’s aria appears early in the opera, and sets much of the tone for the action.
Rodolfo, a poet, shares a garret with Marcello, a painter. Naturally they’re as poor as those church mice everyone seems to talk about. Their Bohemian pals arrive with food and wine; they eat, then decide to go to a café. Rodolfo stays behind to finish off a poem.
Mimi, a seamstress, knocks on the door because her candle has blown out and she needs a match, but then realises she’s lost her key, so the two of them rummage round in the dark trying to find it. She coughs a bit too.
(You know what that means, right? In opera, if someone coughs, it’s not a cold. Hoo boy, no! It means they’re going to die. Coughing = consumption. Quite the scourge back in the day.)
Anyway, their hands touch and Rodolfo is struck by how cold Mimi’s hand is. Cue one of opera’s big numbers!
“Che gelida manina – your tiny hand is frozen,” sings Rodolfo, offering to warm it for her while he tells her about his life. He’s a poet, he says, dirt poor because he fritters away his words like a lord, his way of saying that he writes because he must, because it’s an integral part of him, and if no one pays him, well, that’s the way it is and what the hell. He lives for his art.
To compensate for his lack of money, Rodolfo declares he has the soul of a wealthy man. He dreams big, but clearly has no practical skills. Rodolfo then goes all gooey and tells Mimi his dreams have vanished because her eyes have robbed him of whatever poetry he had. He’s okay with this because he’s now in love.
Ah, love. It never happens faster than in the plot of an opera.
Here’s the incomparable Luciano Pavarotti singing the aria:
Meanwhile, everyone’s in the café. Marcello’s ex, Musetta, appears with her new squeeze, but he’s a bit old and ugly; Marcello is young and gorgeous, so she unceremoniously dumps the old guy and reunites with Marcello. Their amour forms the opera’s subplot.
Some months later, Mimi tells Marcello that she and Rodolfo never stop bickering and she’s going to leave him. When Rodolfo arrives, she hides. He tells Marcello that he’s freaked out about Mimi’s precarious health recognising that he’s too poor to make things better. Plus he’s a bit commitment-phobic.
Mimi can’t stop herself from coughing, so comes out and says goodbye to Rodolfo, but what with all that true love and everything, they can’t bear to be parted.
Meantime, Musetta and Marcello have had a bit of a tiff and have called it quits on their relationship.
A few months later, Rodolfo and Marcello are back in the garret. Their pals arrive once more with food and wine, when suddenly Musetta pounds on the door, telling them that Mimi is gravely ill. The men carry her to Rodolfo’s bed. Her hands, as you’d expect, are freezing (it’s a bit of a theme) and the room is bitterly cold.
As much as they try to comfort Mimi – they even sell some of their possessions to get food and medicine for her – she’s too far gone.
Mimi and Rodolfo sing of their love for one another before she succumbs to the ravages of consumption. It takes a moment before Rodolfo realises she’s dead.
Completely shattered, her calls her name, “Mimi! Mimi!”, as the curtain comes down.
Check out the words of Che gelida manina here.