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No moment is more cherished than the instant when two lovers recognize their passions. Likewise, nothing is more cruel than the moment two lovers are parted. Both moments seem best expressed in music, from the first known opera, Jacopo Peri’s Euridice from 1600, to contemporary musical dramas such as Miss Saigon, which is a remake of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, an opera which many consider the ne plus ultra of the tragic love story. Another Puccini masterpiece, La bohème, is considered his greatest; some fans – none other than Sir Thomas Beecham, for example – call it a “perfect” work.
La bohème begins on a cold and snowy Christmas eve in an artists’ garret, overlooking the rooftops of Paris. Marcello, a painter, and Rodolfo, a poet, have no fuel for the stove until Rodolfo lights a manuscript of his and tosses it in. They are soon joined by Colline, the philosopher; then, just as the fire dies away, the musician Schaunard, as a result of some recent good fortune, brings essentials for the four Bohemians’ evening: wine, cigars, and wood. At this point the Bohemians decide to celebrate by going out to eat at the Café Momus.
All depart except Rodolfo, who remains to finish his writing. He is visited by a neighbor, Mimì, who is also cold and announces sadly that her candle has gone out. Rodolfo revives her with a glass of wine. After brushing her hand, he sings “Che gelida manina” (Your tiny hand is frozen.). In operatime, that’s more than enough time to be madly and totally in love! Mimì replies with her life story (wouldn’t you?), “Si. Mi chiamano Mimì.” The Bohemians are heard below at the Café urging Rodolfo to hurry. The first act ends as Mimì and Rodolfo acknowledge their newfound passion for each other in one of the repertoire’s most sublime duets, “O soave fanciulla.”
Composer Dave Kopplin, who holds a Ph.D. from UCLA, is Publications Coordinator for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Hollywood Bowl. He also is a lecturer in music at Loyola Marymount University.