Puccini’s La Boheme is the quintessential Italian love story. Yes, I know, there’s always Verdi’s La Traviata with Violetta (reformed high-class prostitute) dying of TB at the end. She’s left her middle-class lover at the instigation of his father–to “save” his reputation–and returned to a life of partying until the disease takes over. La Traviata was the quintessential opera play-acting for my sister and me as girls, but now that I’m older, give me Rudolpho’s love song to the little seamstress Mimi.
Puccini, born in the charming walled Tuscan city of Lucca in 1858, created a blend of unfolding story and music called verismo. The music does not stop for set pieces–the older operatic duets, trios, quartets in which characters simply stand still on stage and belt out whatever is motivating them. Instead, the music twines around the action, in fact announces the action which then becomes metaphoric. So when Mimi, the seamstress, knocks at her neighbor’s door (imagine a tall Parisian house with its garret overlooking rooftops), she asks for a light for her candle and then drops her key. Rudolpho, the painter of a trio of bohemian artists, instantly is drawn to her. Takes her hand and begins the love action with “Che gelida manina” or How cold is your little hand. Mimi then introduces herself, “Mi chiamano Mimi…” or They call me Mimi.
What sings in the play of words against melody is the gentle conflict between Mimi’s shyness and Rudolpho’s stratagem–he finds the key and pockets it to keep her there, at the door of his garret. Even more miraculous,the tenor’s high notes, coming from the voice of a young Pavoratti in the recording I own, ascend toward heaven with a continuing richness that takes the breath away. What woman wouldn’t swoon at such an outpouring of passion and melody?
Do we care about the rest of the opera? The inevitable struggle between poverty and freedom, freedom and declining health, which is the staple of the 19th century’s treatment of “consumption?” Do we care that Rudolpho feigns eventual disinterest in Mimi in the hopes that she’ll find a wealthy suitor who will feed and clothe and warm her as her illness requires? Do we care that Mimi inevitably dies in the end–typical sentimental (and of course accurate) conclusion to this scourge of the century which was imbued with the belief that consumption made one more tender, more sensitive, even more lovely?
Coughing up blood, my sister and I took turns dying as Violetta in my mother’s embroidered bed jacket, a piece of nightime apparel we’d never seen our furiously busy and robustly healthy mother wear. What was the appeal to us girls, aged maybe seven (me) and five (my sister) those many years ago in The Old Citadel where we were housed in Charleston, South Carolina? (My father taught at the military college called The Citadel, and this was the former barracks, stretching a block long between Meeting and King Streets, looking for all the world like a medieval-style fortress. We didn’t have a garret, but the huge rooms of our apartment with their 16-foot ceilings and deep window wells gave an entirely European backdrop to our continual expiring.)
What was the appeal of dying young in the arms of an inconstant lover? Well, we didn’t factor in the lover so much as the soaring music and pathos of beauty, youth and death. Nineteenth- century Italian opera from Puccini and Verdi made TB a paragon: consumption was a sign of extra sensitivity; in fact, having the disease bestowed creative genius on the bearer. Somehow with no one telling us this, we girls knew this.
I had to grow much older the find the corrective in the English writer Elizabeth Gaskell’s mid-19th century novels set in the northern manufacturing city of Manchester. There in many of her novels, a pathetic young woman who’s been employed in the mills dies, maybe not of TB but of another lung disease, maybe emphysema, caused by breathing in tiny cotton fibers from the looms. These deaths in the poor holes where the workers live evoke nothing romantic or grand, no soaring metaphors. They do not ennoble the sufferers, though they do in some cases motivate other workers to unionize and protest. This shift, more realistic, emphasizes the cause of these deaths–dangerous working conditions, poor wages, unclean lodgings, heartless mill owners. The drama is much darker than Puccini’s love-enthralled couples. Gaskell shows us a grim, early form of protest literature.
I admire her work and read it with a kind of pleasure. But there’s very little swoon to it. She arouses our sympathic spirit of protest. She does not argue that these lives are ennobled or made more sensitive and artistic by this working-class contagion.