Pucccini’s opera La Bohème isn’t a love story. It is a warning to women never to fall for a poet. Poets – like politicians – tell you the grey sky is blue and you believe them. It’s what they call poetic licence. Politicians we can get rid of. Poets live on with their rhymes and rhythms wriggling around in our heads like eels.
Shakespeare asks in As You Like It: Who ever loved that loved not at first sight? It’s a tricky question Giacomo Puccini touches on without providing an answer in La Bohème. In the opera’s opening scene, we find the poet Rodolfo sitting gloomily before the unlit stove with his friends Marcello and Colline. It is 1830 in the Parisian Latin Quarter. The city of lovers is deep in snow and the cold bites through the raggedy coats of the poets and artists. There is no food or fuel for the fire. We are moved when Rodolfo burns the manuscript for an unfinished play.
Their friend Schaunard arrives with some cash earned from giving music lessons and he takes everyone out to eat at the Café Momus. Rodolfo impresses his friends when he stays behind ‘to finish the last few lines of a new poem.’ It is important that he is seen as having the heart of a poet.
Love at First Sight
While Rodolfo pauses with his pen on the paper, a girl as pale as moonlight appears at his door with a burnt-out candle and a look of helplessness. She has lost her key and has no light with which to search for it. Rodolfo finds the key – but secretly keeps it from her. Why? It’s not explained. It’s what poets do. It’s poetic licence.
Mimi shivers with cold. Her hands are frozen and Rodolfo warms them in his own. As he stares into her big brown eyes, he is struck by a coup de foudre: love at first sight. He takes Mimi to the Café Momus. Schaunard spends his last few coins on more wine and the party grows lively when Marcello’s former paramour, Musetta, arrives with her new lover, a wealthy older man. In a scarlet dress with a thousand petticoats, Musetta dances among the tables. She is vibrant, vulgar, the opposite of Mimi, a poor seamstress whose one pleasure is ‘her white room with the view over the Paris rooftops.’
Poetic Licence for the Banal
In the following scene, a month later, Marcello and Musetta are back together and living at a tavern where Marcello is painting a mural. Rodolfo when he visits tells Marcello he is no longer seeing his great love. Mimi is ‘fickle’, he says, and has fallen for a ‘Viscount’.
This is poetic licence. Or, put another way, a whopping great fib. Mimi’s lungs are succumbing to tuberculosis and Rodolfo can’t face this banal reality. Once he discovers that Mimi is dying, he kneels at her bedside with his heart bursting like a flower. There are tears on his cheeks, but it is Musetta who sells her earrings to buy medicine and a fur muff for Mimi’s cold hands.
Puccini’s duet sung by Rodolfo and Mimi fools us into thinking this is a love story. It is not. It reveals finally that poets are in love with love and seek from their lover a mirror that reflects themselves. Within the small print of their poetic licence, poets assume the right to modify truths and invert syntax to comply with the metrical requirements of their ode. Poets seek harmony with words, not people.
Rodolfo has woven himself into the costume of the poet, but beneath his fancy vest beats the heart of a narcissist. His poetic licence is a sham, and we find in the subtext of Puccini’s tragedy a savage indictment of those men with faraway eyes who call themselves poets. Be afraid. Be very afraid. Fall for a poet and he will rip open your chest and eat your heart.
CLICK HERE to see La Bohème with Luciano Pavarotti and Mirella Freni as Mimi