It's not hard to label Giacomo Puccini a misogynist: even his biggest fans admit that his personal life was messy at best. As an old school chauvinist, he felt entitled to indulge constantly in brief romantic liaisons, which he justified as his right as a man and an artist.
And it doesn't take much insight to notice that Puccini's heroines are a sickly, suicidal bunch: leading to the obvious conclusion on the part of fans and detractors alike that Puccini, though clearly sexually attracted to women, didn't really like them. With the notable exceptions of Turandot, Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi and Minnie in Fanciulla del West, Puccini's heroines generally meet tragic ends, usually through suicide.
Woman hater? Not really. Indeed, of all opera composers, Puccini was, regardless of his personal life and despite his predilection for tragic endings, arguably the most pro-woman of all opera composers. Feminist? Maybe not in the current sense of the word. But in terms of sheer fascination, adoration, and artistic understanding of women, no one reaches farther, and speaks more convincingly than Puccini.
In the operatic exploration of woman, he had his predecessors: Mozart and his librettists in the late eighteenth century proved that opera could address the question of "what is woman?" with a brilliance unobtainable in other art forms. Between Mozart and Puccini, Bizet created the most fascinating and alluring female in all drama in the heroine of Carmen. But it was Puccini, and Puccini alone, who devoted his entire career, from Manon Lescaut to Turandot, to exploring the nature of woman through opera. Indeed, when viewed as a whole, Puccini's canon is a cycle of works unified in their passionate exploration of the subject of womanhood.
La bohme, the second opera in Puccini's grand cycle, provides one of the finest examples of his fascination with womankind. The story comes from Henry Murger's tales of the "Bohemian" life (i.e., that of the carefree and artistic young) in Paris in the 1830s and 1840s; Giulio Ricordi, Puccini's publisher, assigned not one but two authors to the task of coming up with a libretto suitable for Puccini, who was basking in the glory of his first hit, Manon Lescaut, in 1893. One might speculate that Ricordi deliberately set up a situation that would result in the sort of anxiety that Puccini thrived on; that Puccini's sometime friend, sometime rival Ruggero Leoncavallo, fresh from his triumph with Pagliacci, was also working on a version of La bohme merely added another layer to the tension surrounding the creation of Puccini's version. The two librettists, with Puccini breathing over their shoulders, fashioned a skillful text and own much of the credit for the opera's success; in the end, it is Puccini's music that creates the power that makes Bohme a perennial favorite
La bohme can be taken as an artistic lament for the end of traditional artistry, represented by the young Bohemian men, in the Industrial Revolution. Taken another way, the opera deals with the end of carefree young adulthood and the beginning of maturity. It's also a simple love story contrasting the impulsive love of Marcello and Musetta with the serene, confident devotion of MimÐ and Rodolfo. For the analytically minded, it's a giant symphony in four movements disguised as an opera, complete with an opening Allegro, a Scherzo, an Adagio, and Finale. It's also a Mediterranean answer to Wagner, stealing the concept of the leitmotif and applying it not to gods and heroes, but to common people.
But more than any of those, La bohme is a study of the power of women over men. The curtain rises on a world of men: and it takes five of them, boisterous, selfish, and irresponsible: to balance the presence of one woman, MimÐ. When romance strikes, it is MimÐ who makes Rodolfo's world complete; he needs her much more than she needs him.
In Act II, a whole crowd of noisy, reveling Parisians is dumbstruck by one woman, Musetta, who represents impulse as clearly as MimÐ personifies steadfastness. And, just as Rodolfo needs MimÐ, Marcello needs Musetta far more than she will never need him.
While MimÐ expounds a quiet philosophy of patience and simplicity, Musetta proclaims the joy of seducing the whole world. Though they are temperamentally opposites, MimÐ and Musetta are immediately friends and remain so, further underlining the case for Bohme as a feminist document. The vision of woman here illuminated by Puccini, at once brash and serene, is too complex to be contained on the stage in one body; one might argue, indeed, that MimÐ and Musetta are one complex personality divided into two characters.
Even in Act III, when the impulsive relationship of Marcello and Musetta falls apart and the steadfast hearts of MimÐ and Rodolfo reunite, the two women determine the destiny of both couples; the men merely react. Puccini's women are the agents of change, while his men are their emotional servants.
But what, the skeptic asks, of that maudlin 19th-century deathbed scene that makes up the final act? Once again, there's more here than is initially obvious. MimÐ is no longer merely a woman who is dying; she becomes the motivation through which each of her friends comes to know himself or herself. One by one, each gives up the thing that he or she loves the most: a book, a coat, jewelry: in a futile attempt to make the sacrifice that might keep MimÐ alive. And, collectively, MimÐ's deathbed companions learn of a love far greater than friendship or even romantic love: the love of one human being for another.
Though he will return to his study of the feminine in still more operatic masterpieces, here Puccini becomes an ultimate feminist and, ultimately, transcends gender. We each become Musetta, MimÐ, Marcello, Rodolfo, Colline and Schaunard. In dying, MimÐ shows those around her the strength they contain in themselves. MimÐ is gone, but her friends, and we with them, will go on, understanding because of her that we are greater than we thought we were, and capable of greater acts of love than we knew.
Wayne Lee Gay is Production Editor for the American Literary Review. He is currently completing the short story cycle Jeans, Boots, and Starry Skies.
For further information and tickets to Dallas Opera's La bohme, visit Dallas Opera.