I must admit rather shamefully that my first exposure to Puccini’s La Bohème was in the 1987 movie Moonstruck, starring none other than Cher and Nicolas Cage. Many elements of Puccini’s La Bohème are incorporated into this guilty-pleasure 80s film, which is perhaps the only reason my musician parents introduced it to me. I always recalled an aria swelling dramatically as Cher strolled down a dirty New York street kicking a smashed soda can after a presumably lovely night with her fiancé’s brother. Seeking the source of this beautiful music, I have since learned that the aria is none other than “O soave fanciulla” – the duet between Mimi and Rodolfo in La Bohème where they first admit their love for one another.
[In the following clip, skip to 1:35 to watch the scene with “O soave fanciulla”]: Moonstruck Clip
Bohème was written about a century prior to the release of Moonstruck right at the turn of the nineteenth century. This was a time in which composers were steadily turning away from Romanticism towards a genre of music known as “verismo.” Music critics, as music critics do, argue about La Bohème’s true genre, verismo or not.
La Bohème has some definitively verismo qualities, such as a plot focused on everyday struggling artists, a clear departure from the traditional scena ed aria form, and the use of the orchestra as a narrator. It also, however, nods to past Romantics, especially Wagner, through the abounding use of leitmotifs and the never-resolving, long melodic phrase modeled after Wagner’s Prelude to Tristan und Isolde.
Background of the Term “Verismo”
The genre of “verismo” essentially arose by means of “domino effect” as a result of some significant political, cultural, and social changes happening in Italy. After Italy’s unification in 1860, the bourgeois class replaced the aristocracy as the dominant class and in turn the philosophy of positivism reigned supreme. Positivism, as proposed by Frenchman Auguste Compte, said the world had moved beyond theological, metaphysical thought and was entering a time in which knowledge was based on science. This spurred a naturalism movement in France, which in turned sparked the verismo movement in literature in Italy. Veristic literature emphasized naturalism and realistic, unadorned writing, as opposed to the more florid, embellished style of Romantic literature. This movement in literature affected opera, resulting in what many musicologists call the first veristic opera, Cavalleria rusticana by Pietro Mascagni.
Cavalleria rusticana, or Rustic Chivalry, is a one-act opera based on a story by none other than Giovanni Verga. Cavalleria tells of a love triangle (or square, rather) surrounding four peasants living in a Sicilian village. One is killed off, as was the plot ending of choice with all of the operas for a brief period following this. Following the great success of Cavalleria and another one-act opera, Pagliacci, produced around the same time and of similar plot content, an abundance of short, violent, “plebian” operas were published. Though great in number, the quality of these works was less so and thus, many fell into oblivion and this period was short-lived.
Additionally, right around this time a group of burgeoning talented young opera composers came into the scene, those being Alfredo Catalani, Alberto Franchetti, and Giacomo Puccini. These composers became known as members of the “giovane scuola” or “young school” of Italian composers, a term initiated by the publisher Edoardo Sonzongo for mostly commercial reasons.
Musicologists dispute whether verismo is simply another name for the brief period of short, violent operas written immediately post-Cavalleria, anything written during the fin-de-siècle (end of the century), or a catalogue for works written by those considered a part of the giovane scuola.
What is verismo as it pertains to opera? According to Oxford Music Online, verismo shares several qualities with naturalism: “an impersonal narrative style, an interest in the lower social strata, a true-to-life approach in dealing with contemporary reality,” but verismo distinctively has a “regional character,” reassesses “the link between art and reality…to allow greater freedom to the imagination,” and the veristi (composers of verismo) “arrived at an objectivity that implied total consistency of form and content.” In Alan Mallach’s The Autumn of Italian Opera, Mallach discusses whether indeed verismo is fact or fiction, and he offers his own qualifications for verismo which can be lumped into three cohesive sections: the change in musical language, the new role of the orchestra, and a fundamental shift in moral response in plot. The prime musical characteristics of these composers that differed from those of the past include: octave doublings, pedals, ostinato rhythms, and the increased use of short, almost spoken phrases—“quasi parlando,” all of which serve to make the scenes and actions on stage more immediate. The orchestra now serves as a narrator, or perhaps the composer’s own voice. Finally, the high moral code embodied for so long by means of the Roman Catholic Church has now been replaced by more positivist views.
As perhaps is made clear here, defining verismo is no easy task moreover it may be simply impossible. Music critics and musicologists have offered many varying opinions of what verismo truly is over the last century. There are some clear accepted characteristics of verismo which will be used to analyze “O soave fanciulla” alongside Mallach’s three criteria for veristic works.
La Bohème and “O soave fanciulla”: verismo or Romantic?
La Bohème takes place in Paris in the 1830s during a cold winter. The opening scene shows the abode of our Bohemians, the top floor apartment of a Latin Quarter garrett. The painter, Marcello, and Rodolfo, a writer, both attempting to keep warm. After a run-in with the landlord (with whom they are behind on payments), the Bohemians set out to go to Café Momus, while Rodolfo remains in the flat to write. Rodolfo hears a knock at the door and sees a young woman asking for him to light her candle, as it has gone out. After several attempts to light and re-light their candles, Mimi loses her key and they both set out to find it. By the end of the night, they confess their love for one another in the duet “O soave fanciulla.”
Act II demonstrates their growing love for one another, but by Act III their relationship is in trouble. Rodolfo knows Mimi is extremely sick and fears she will die. They separate, but in Act IV Mimi comes to Rodolfo’s door, on the steps of death herself, and she ends up dying in his arms.
Most, if not all, characteristics of verismo can be applied to La Bohème. The plot centers around the poor bohemians, Rodolfo, Marcello, Colline, Schaunard, attempting to live on the moneyless livelihoods of art. Our central character, Rodolfo, loses his love to disease. Devoid of finances, there is nothing he can do to save her. Puccini, along with his librettists Illica and Giacosa were able to capture the ecstasy of “two ordinary people from the everyday moment of life, growing from such small things as a candle and a misplaced key.” Its everyday, ordinariness makes it veristic.
Mallach’s first criterion for verismo, the role of the orchestra as a character, can certainly be applied to La Bohème, as well as many of Puccini’s works. Rather than simply serving as an accompaniment to the singers, the orchestra is essential in providing additional voicing to motives or foreshadowing an upcoming motive. This can be seen in “O soave fanciulla” in a number of places.
There are two motives that Puccini reuses from Rodolfo’s previous aria “Che gelida manina.” In the A section, the orchestra frequently plays the “Talor dal mio forziere” motive that occurs about halfway through “Che gelida manina.” The horns and flutes begin the aria playing the motive in measures 1 and 2. The trumpets and harp then play it again in measures 3 and 4. The oboes, English horn, and clarinets then play it in measures 5 and 6. This all builds up to the climax of the aria in which Rodolfo and Mimi in unison sing this same motive we’ve heard over and over in the beginning. We do not hear this particular motive in the aria again. [0:00-0:44 in the youtube clip]
The second motive is the entirety of the first two phrases Rodolfo sings at the beginning of “Che gelida manina.” It comes back in its entirety at the end of “O soave fanciulla.” As Mimi sings, “I’ll always be near you” in measures 28 and 29, Puccini cleverly uses only a portion of Rodolfo’s motive, its first appearance here [2:13-2:23 in the youtube clip]. The motive then makes a complete appearance beginning in measure 31, created by Mimi and Rodolfo each singing a small segment of it so that together they have fully created the melodic motive. The orchestra then finishes the motive in measures 35 and 36. [2:28-2:59 in the youtube clip]
Puccini is not finished with his tricks yet, however. Beginning in measure 13, two solo violins and a solo cello play in unison with Rodolfo through measure 16. Meanwhile, a solo flute, English horn, clarinet, and bassoon play in unison with Mimi through measure 16. He is clearly associating different sections of the orchestra with either of the two lovers.
Finally, the harp throughout the aria portrays the all-important moon. The long rising and falling glissandos in mm. 8-12 propel the us into the climax of the aria and cease as soon as Rodolfo sings his pianissimo line, “Love shall now rule our hearts.” Puccini was clearly quite intentional in incorporating the orchestra as more than simply accompaniment to the singers.
Another sign of Puccini’s departure from the Romantic is his clear dismissal of any clear aria form . The standard aria form at the time, made so by Gioachino Rossini, was the scena ed aria form. This form, as the name would indicate, has two distinct sections: the scene and the aria. The scene begins with an instrumental introduction followed by a recitative section. The aria that follows has two components: first, a cantabile section expressing calm moods and followed by a cabaletta expressing more active emotions. A duet would have the same form, except that the cantabile would often be preceded by a section, the tempo d’attacco, in which the characters would trade melodic phrases.
While “O soave fanciulla” certainly has a clear form, it is not so clear-cut as the form Rossini made standard. While operatic continuity with Rossini may have been framed around form, Puccini’s operas fell into more cohesive units through means of melodic motives tying the entire work together. Thus, the instrumental introduction is completely absent, though this aria does certainly contrast two very different emotions. The A section builds quite rapidly and quickly to a dramatic climax in measure 9 as Rodolfo and Mimi passionately express their newfound love for one another. Only 9 bars later, however, the two descend into a quiet recitative section. By measure 24, the third section begins and the duet closes as the two exit the stage singing at the top of their ranges at pianissimo.
Despite these qualities, there are huge components of this aria, as well as the entire opera that are clear nods to the great Romantics that were significant influences on Puccini, especially Wagner. After the failure of Puccini’s early opera Edgar, Ricordi sent him to Bayreuth to prepare a reduced score of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg for presentation at the La Scala 1889-1890 season. As such, Puccini was engaged in deep study with Wagner’s score and began to assimilate many of Wagner’s techniques into his writing. In this aria, two things attributed to Wagner are clearly used: the use of leitmotif and the never-resolving B section of “O soave fanciulla”, akin to the opening of the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde.
The influence of Wagner can clearly be seen in the brief transitioning section in measures 18 through 23 of “O soave fanciulla.” Looking strictly at the two exchanging vocal lines, each takes the final note of the previous singer and raises it by a half step during his or her brief declamation. For example, in measure 18, Mimi sings only E-sharps. In the pickup to measure 19, Rodolfo sings an E-sharp followed by an F-sharp in the following measure. Mimi then takes the F-sharp and raises in to a G-natural in measure 20. This continues through measure 21. All the while, the orchestra sustains single chords for the entirety of each measure. This effect serves the nature of this section: Rodolfo clearly wants Mimi to stay (and perhaps kiss her a little longer) while Mimi tells him his friends are waiting, though she wants to come along. The anticipatory back-and-forth along with slow, unresolved chords heighten the tension of the situation. This rings of the tension created by unresolved chords in the Tristan Prelude and it is clear that Wagner’s sound inspired this section. [1:23-1:43 in the youtube clip]
When reviewing the criteria of verismo, the trends at the turn of the nineteenth century, and attempting to box La Bohème into a specific genre, efforts may fall fruitless. Techniques from both genres can absolutely be applied to “O soave fanciulla.” Because of its unique form, its use of the orchestra as another character, and its central story of impoverished Bohemians, it is clearly associated with the verismo genre of the late nineteenth century. However, its use of Wagnerian techniques call into question whether it falls into a genre removed from Romanticism. This conundrum only furthers the notion that the boundaries of musical eras are quite fluid: music is composed along a continuum and never jumps fully from genre to genre. Puccini continued to draw from the latest musical developments of the time and incorporated them into his operas. As Jay Nicolaisen writes in Italian Opera in Transition, 1871-1893, even knowing the forty year difference between Puccini’s first and last works could not “have prepared one for the enormous difference in style that separates [them].” Instead of attempting to classify La Bohème as a specific genre in music, we can instead look the enormous array of resources Puccini drew upon in the creation of his works, merging musical eras together and propelling Italian opera “which from today’s vantage point seems henceforth to have rested solely in the hands of Giacomo Puccini.”
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