Wednesday 17 August 2011

La vie bohèmienne

La Bohème, ENO, the Coliseum, London

The ENO’s recent production of Puccini’s (1858-1924) popular La Bohème, despite lagging a little towards the end, has a recognisable aesthetic from the moment the curtain lifts. Jonathan Miller’s revived production shows a shabby sidestreet lit by a dim streetlight running alongside a tumbledown studio, its front removed to reveal inside a narrow staircase leading up to the first floor. There, musty lines of multicoloured bottles line the sills of high dirty windows. To the left a tiny bed next to a desk set with a typewritter and several scrumpled balls of paper scattergun beside the bin. To the right a few threadbare armchairs near a weak fire. This is Paris, the Latin Quarter, poor but not too depressing - and these shabby but flamboyant-looking men - are artistes.

What is most noticeable about this one of Puccini’s works, besides its short length, is its very familiarity. Some of the most performed operas - Madame Butterfly, Tosca (Puccini), Carmen (Bizet), The Marriage of Figaro, The Magic Flute (Mozart) - speak to us through their characters, taking an effort of understanding to absorb a place and time, not least the political concerns that shape them, very different from our own. Whilst the protagonists of Bohème are under-developed ciphers in contrast with those of the others, the world of the opera is much closer to home, not only geographically but historically too. This is an opera that communicates a mood.

The story follows an aspiring poet, Rodolfo, as he falls in love with a poor seamstress named Mimi. The two lovers enjoy a brief and happy time together before apparent jealousy rips them apart. Yet Marcello, one of the artists’ milieu, spots a coughing and emaciated Mimi in the street in Act 3, as she confirms both her love for Rodolfo and his suspicions of her fatal consumption. She has not found a more wealthy suitor to take care of her, as Rodolfo had hoped. The pair are then briefly reunited, their love rekindled, whilst the arresting singer Mussetta pawns some belongings for medicine. Mimi dies happy by the fire with her lover besides her, who is left singing her name.

The story is drawn from a series of short sketches – a useful form for exploring something new - written in the 1840s by little-known French writer Henri Murger, Scenes de la vie de bohème. Unlike most self-styled bohemians of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, who tended to come from reasonably wealthy and educated middle-class families, Murger was the son of a German immigrant who worked in more scanty jobs. He wrote what he saw emerging around him. His work made him famous for a time and better off, though to all accounts he died poor yet was afforded a state funeral – French and English alike were fascinated by his descriptions of a new, liberated kind of lifestyle, and helped to popularise Murger’s adoption of the term ‘bohemian’. 

Some bohemians were even reputedly rebuked by fellows for moving out of the poorer part of the city with their new-found wealth to a more respectable district. Yet bohemianism was supposed to be a brief, transitory period in the artist’s life. And despite the fascination there was reaction as well. To begin with ‘bohemian’ was applied to gypsies from the actual state of Bohemia in central Europe, known in the main as petty criminals living destitute lives. And as late as the 1880s and afterwards,  ‘bohemianism’ was conceived by more conservative thinkers in negative terms,  a ‘moral disease’ or ‘psychological malady’ affecting the weak of mind who contributed little to society but were happy to benefit from it (noticeably The Times in 1880 (1)).

Interestingly enough, Murger’s loose sketches were adapted for Puccini’s opera by his librettists and not premiered in Turin until 1896. By this time, the tide had begun to turn, especially in the more liberated parts of France. Later, Oscar Wilde – the Dublin playwright and dandy – would famously retire to the more open-minded-seeming Paris after a court case at the end of his life, his open homosexuality not being welcome in Britain. Sexual proclivity was an accepted if not expected part of bohemian life.

Murger’s originals have only a loose narrative and a number of characters were combined to make for a smoother story, whilst other elements were softened, too: Murger has Mimi dying alone and carted off to a communal grave in a barrow – in his telling, Rodolfo gets only to see the pallid corpse. The reality was maybe much harsher and divisive than the stories suggested. Much discussion has been had about the extent to which both Merger and others romanticised bohemian life, and how far the ‘bohemians’ themselves were more than happy to create an image.

In fact, central to bohemianism was a kind of ambivalence – were these real artists, or were they simply avoiding the traditional expectations of their stations by legitimising their own pleasure-seeking? This question of the status and quality of art was a genuine one and remains with us today, albeit tangled in quite contemporary concerns. On the other hand, these were emerging middle-class tradesmen-artists, keen to forge an identity for themsleves and sense of coherent, solid presence in wider society. Drawing on the resurgence of classical ideas in the Italian Renaissance over 500 years earlier, this was firmly the artist as a distinctive individual mind, a privileged being in his own right.

Indeed, following the consolidation of the modern period in western Europe, this impulse had deepened but also taken a more explicit form – the sphere of culture had become more autonomous, and the artists within it were beginning to be cast as the purveyors of special truths about the newly-emerging, often unresolved society that had grown up around them. This was filled with contradictions and tensions, and social unrest had already made itself felt not just in the French Revolution of 1789 but the popular uprisings across Europe dubbed ‘Springtime of the Peoples’ in 1848, or the Paris Commune of 1871. Indeed, how far the bohemians served broader social aims, however indirectly, and how far they turned away from society to simply watch their own backs, is an open and maybe overly-simplistic question.

One obvious contrast is the relative openness of Paris compared with the perceived conservativism of Britain; over here, bohemian ideals led not so much to an emulation of artistic poverty in the vibrant cafes of the Latin Quarter so characteristic of popular writers like Hemmingway or Camus, but rather the more self-consciously elitist modernism of the moneyed Bloomsbury Group in the 1920s. Among other factors, such as growing female liberation during this period, the indirect experience of more relaxed bohemian-like lifestyle gave way to such things as the founding of the ‘rational dress society’ in London, pioneering amongst other things looser skirts for riding bicycles instead of cumbersome dresses for women. Although, it’s safe to say that great, insightful or otherwise significant art can emerge from the most unlikely of places, and certainly not always out of rosy, or even laudable, characters and situations. 

Regardless, bohemianism as a concept remains an attractive idea to twenty-first century audiences. This has something to do with the emphasis it places on individual self-expression in opposition to the petty constraints of society. Puccini’s bohemians don’t even realise it’s Christmas Eve in their relative isolation from respectable folk, and go regularly without food, drink or money only to indulge at the drop of a hat in their excitable carousing. They are quick to love and equally quick to envy, adept word-smiths spinning castles in the sky regardless of their impoverished existence. Some of the best moments of this otherwise quite thin yet gripping opera (Benjamin Britten is reported to have been particularly vituperous about Puccini) show the generous humanity of the characters: their sharing together despite being poor, the dancing and back-slapping encouragement and grief in the face of early death. Although extreme, this is bound up with the verismo realist tradition that influenced Puccini in Italy, and does offer a quite specific perspective into certain elements of ‘real life’.

Yet it is Musetta’s Waltz - Quando me’n vo’  (When I go along) - sung in the lively Café Momus that is perhaps the best known tune of La Bohème. The singer Musetta tries to recapture her old lover Marcello’s attention by making him jealous: ‘People stop and stare at me/And everyone looks at my beauty’. This captures most fully the vibrant self-confidence of the bohemians, their indefatigable youth, tempo and depth of passionate feeling- maybe a large part of what still appeals to audiences. Musetta is at the Momus with a rich new suitor who the quartet land with the bill, whilst Rodolfo sits with Mimi (here with Madelyn Renee, d’Amico and Pavorotti in 1986):

Bohemianism today maintains its dual character. There is something striking in its emphasis on not being held back by narrow social restraints, and something important about the value it places on the individual. Yet it should be pointed out that the sort of restrictions that problematised women or homosexuals for example were most properly social, and do not exist today: perhaps the constraints are different. Indeed, the idea of being outside or even against society has gathered pace since the heady cultural politics of the 1960s. Today, the idea of ‘expressing yourself’ strikes many as an empty pursuit caught up with superficial identity politics and endless concerns about ‘lifestyle’, rather than signifying genuine independence in the world. In this sense, ‘being an individual’ has taken on connotations of being ‘counter-cultural’, rejecting society’s pressures and demands rather than seeking to engage with and overcome them.

It is this element of bohemianism that chimes with a contemporary cultural vogue. The Broadway musical Rent was a reimagining of Puccini’s classic, later made into a film. Here, a bunch of plucky American college students laugh, love and make merry – Musetta’s waltz is sung at an offical function as a duet between two girls asserting their personalities, one less conservative (‘there will always be women in rubber’) and the other more so (‘I make lists in my sleep’), ‘Take me or leave me’: 

As seems increasingly usual, it is the ‘conservative’ one who captures our sympathies. This song is upbeat, and captures something important about the idea of the self-confident freedom of youth as it has gone on to be articulated in the twentieth century. Nevertheless, whilst its easy counterposition of the ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ forces, the grainy old grey-haired pessmists and optimistic young, might appeal to younger viewers, this falls short of capturing twenty-first century realities. Moreover, it reflects a sometime consensus that there is something somehow amiss with those who do rise to positions of authority and responsibility within society, and that this sometimes takes an institutional form. Again, the point about the bohemian life is its transitory nature – it is a brief release before joining the rest of society, and in this, could even be read as ultra-conservative.

This discussion is distant but by no means disconnected from from Puccini’s opera, of course. What is perhaps important to take from La Bohème is not any deeper message, as critics of Puccini have always criticised his lack of musical and metaphorical depth, but rather the fact that a century on, his work still has draw and popular appeal. This should tell us two things: first, that the idea that elite art-forms are irrelevant does not always bear weight; and second, that developments in culture still have a way to go.

(1) The Times, 2 July 1880, reproduced here.

Enjoyed this article? Share it with others.


Culture Wars in association with the Battles in Print, specially commissioned essays for the Battle of Ideas festival, with 2010’s essays now online.

Marxists Online
Marx, Engels, Lenin and beyond

New Left Review, international Leftist journal

Mute Magazine, culture and politics after the net

Red Pepper, influenced by socialism, feminisim and environmental politics

Dissent Magazine, US Leftist journal for the clashing of strong opinions

And its counterpart, Commentary, general, yet Jewish

Granta, magazine for new writing

Wikipedia, ze internet encyclopedia

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Online, all things philosophical