Àlex Ollé – LA BOHÈME: a XIX century’s phenomenon

Written by Àlex Ollé
at Teatro Regio Torino, Italy

It was 1896 when Giacomo Puccini presented the world première of LA BOHÈME at Teatro Regio di Torino, fifty years after the publication of SCÈNES DE LA VIE DE BOHÈME by Henri Murger, published in instalments between 1845 and 1849 on the literary journal LE CORSAIRE.

Teatro Regio | LA BOHÈME
Photo: Ramella&Giannese © Teatro Regio Torino

 

The opera inherited the old but still attractive memory of those penniless artists who lived in the Parisian Latin Quarter in the early 19th century and that embodied an authentic social and literary phenomenon. The Puccinian portrait made of sketches could appear even simplistic but you only need to scrape the surface to discover a completely different perspective about a deeply-routed social movement.

To understand, it is necessary to contextualize the birth of LA BOHÈME in the wake of the French Revolution (1789) and the bloody ending of the Ancien Régime which had indirect but fundamental consequences for the future of arts, the autonomy of the artist from the patronage of the aristocracy. From that point on, artists, relieved of any obligations, took part in frequent and regular bourgeois revolutions throughout Europe from 1820 to 1848.

Bohémiens, the so-called sub-class of artists, rose up from this fertile ground in a rebellious and free, almost libertine atmosphere. The number of politically-involved artists was potentially infinite and their radical political ideas found expression in the arts and spread out through the entire 19th century, drawing the guidelines for the next century.

 

LA BOHÈME in the XXI century

120 years have passed since the premiere of LA BOHÈME and the world of today differs a lot from the romantic Paris in the 1800s. 21st century metropolitan cities have become closed off entities where bohemian lifestyle, as an artistic youth movement, blends into a sociological underworld of deprived suburbs, marked by great cultural diversity as a result of intercontinental migrations.

What remains unchanged over time are feelings, youthfulness, the lust for life, artistic vocation, dreams of glory, the wish for immediate happiness, love attraction as an explosion of flesh and spirit, and the unconscious joy of those young people who feel no fear for the future as a burden of responsibility or who are not weighed down with the inacceptable duties of a spoiled society.

The revolutionary political message of the arts lives on and is kept alive in the refusal of this society. The romantic challenge pulsates still today, even if the standardised world where we live has overwhelmed the individual, imposing on him the anonymity of sky scrapers.

 

Teatro Regio | LA BOHÈME
Photo: Ramella&Giannese © Teatro Regio Torino

 

A contemporary mise-en-scène

We place our BOHÈME in this closed-off town, into an anonymous and standardised district.

A place where the bohemian sketches of Henri Murger could find a renewed meaning.  A place where the new generation of artists, from every corner of the planet, could live side by side with marginalized people, exploited workers on the breadline, young women capable of anything in order to survive in megalopolis. What we see is a mixed-classed, multi-racial and multi-cultural population. A place where at least you can recognise characters featured in Puccini’s opera.

In this context, what touches us are the vicissitudes of the characters, imbued with a fragile happiness threatened by fleeting time, the precariousness of life, exposure to cold, starvation, diseases, so real today as well as at the time. LA BOHÈME is misery dissembled by beauty, indigence endured with a certain irony, yesterday and today. 

If this opera passes through and moves generations is probably because LA BOHÈME is first of all a tribute to a loss of youth.  The same of a well-off spectator who has given up the time for illusions, love, aspiration for glory, the time where poverty was experienced with a feeling of adventure. The same lossed youth of a well-off spectator dragged down by the common sense of an adult and responsible human being. Nostalgic memories of a passionate youth belonging to a time that has passed and will not come back.

This crucial passage to becoming a grown up is lived by the characters of LA BOHÈME too. Between the vibrant presentation of them and the realisation of the unavoidable arrival of the adulthood, there is the tragic moment of Mimi’s dead. The illusion of a world made of dreams dissolves through Mimi’s death. She represents the present moment, the necessity to face up to the reality. Sorrow, cruelty and the ruthless imposition of reality confront us with the fact that our bohemian time has come to an end and that a new time is starting, maybe a countdown to the final dissolution into oblivion.