Puccini A to Z – Q as in Quando m’en vo’

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Quando m'en vo': the poetic of La Bohème

Quando m’en vo’

The poetic of La Bohème

Puccini liked to compose with a lot of friends around, in total confusion: something he had in common with Richard Strauss and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Painter Ferruccio Pagni, a full-time member of club La bohème, was present when Puccini finished the opera:

That evening, while we were playing [cards], Giacomo was composing the last measures of the opera

–  Silence! – he said at one point – I’m done!

We left the cards and moved closer to him…

–  Now I’ll play it for you: this is a good ending

And he started from Mimí’s line “Sono andati…”. While Puccini was playing and singing that music made of small pauses, light touches, anguish, breathlessness, sighing, filled with a subtle melancholy and a dramatic deepness, we were completely raptured by it; and we were seeing the scene and feeling all that human torment, because here really the expression has returned to its origins and eternal substance: Pain.

When the chords of death came down, a shiver went through all of us and none of us could stop weeping. The soave fanciulla, our Mimí, was lying cold on her little bed and we would have never heard her sweet and tender voice again. We had a vision: “Rodolfo”, “Marcello”, “Schaunard”, “Colline” were our figures and we their reincarnation, “Mimí” our lover from a past or a dream, and all that pain was our own pain.

Even without the rhetoric of the time, Pagni’s testimony enlightens us once more on how much of his own reality Puccini poured in his opera: he had lived his own bohème as a poor student, in Milan; even though he was doing much better, the memory was still fresh in his mind. His friends became characters on stage: Puccini himself was Rodolfo, Pagni was Colline, Cecco Gragnani was Marcello. The entire company of Club la Bohème was there. But all of it was seen with a sort of distance, from an artistic point of view, aided, naturally, by the verses of the libretto.

Quando m'en vo': the poetic of La Bohème

The importance of the verses

Puccini took into great consideration the verses of the libretto and their rhythm. However, unlike most opera composers of the 19th century, not every bar of music was generated by the words and he always asked for changes that used to drive his librettists crazy. The collaboration with Illica and Giacosa worked out because both librettists realized the genius of Puccini, largely thanks to his editor Giulio Ricordi, always busy in trying to balance different artistic personalities. Usually, the trio would proceed in steps[1]:

  1. Reducing the drama to a suitable libretto – Illica and Puccini
  2. Musical drafts with suggestions for the verses – Puccini
  3. Versification – Giacosa
  4. Composition and orchestration – Puccini
  5. Dramatic fine-tuning – Illica and Puccini
  6. Poetical fine-tuning – Illica, Giacosa, Puccini
  7. Musical fine-tuning – Puccini 

Puccini used to form an idea of sound in his head to wrap his characters or a specific situation on stage, or more simply already had a suitable theme or melody to use. If the music was working fine, the verses would need to adapt to the music. It’s the case of the famous “cocoricó-cocoricó-bistecca“, which in Italian doesn’t mean anything and was sent as a rhythmical trace for the aria of Musetta “Quando m’en vo’“. Illica’s and Giacosa’s tables were flooded with these kinds of requests.

It goes without saying that it could be extremely frustrating for the two librettists to have to deal with this on a regular basis: to the point that Giacosa threatened to pull out more than once. Only Ricordi managed to convince him to stay after playing Puccini’s score at the piano for him.

Puccini - the poetic of La Bohème
Puccini - the poetic of La Bohème

The making of a drama

As it turned out, refining the verses was the least of issues: much more problematic was reducing Murger’s work to a drama. The Scènes de Bohème had not been conceived originally as a novel but as a series of short separate stories (published on Le Corsaire Satan between 1845 and 1849): the novel only came in 1851 with the title Scènes de la vie de Bohème. Puccini and his librettists claim they based the libretto on this and not on the early short stories. However, in both Murger’s works, the characters of Mimí and Musetta were very much alike and there was the need for a tight dramatic arc that would allow to logically build an opera out of it.

Sure the subject was of great relevance in Italy where the verismo movement was having an enormous success: Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana was becoming so popular that Puccini himself had travelled to Sicily to meet Giovanni Verga (the author of the homonym novella) to talk about making an opera out of another tale of the Sicilian writer, La Lupa – a project that never saw the light as Puccini was not convinced of the characters. Another verismo composer had put his eyes on Murger’s work and had already started working on it, Ruggero Leoncavallo.

The time lost after La Lupa and the querelle with Leoncavallo were just the tip of the iceberg: what really took time and a lot of effort was the dramaturgy of the piece; Illica was thorough and attentive to the details (though not as much as Leoncavallo): he cut one male role (the character of Barbemouche) and disseminated the libretto of references to the original work; the name of the magazine Rodolfo is editor of (Il Castoro), Marcello’s painting (Il mar rosso), the moment in which Mimí loses the key to her room.

Refining the structure

However, the overall structure was different from what we’ve come to know: the first quadro was split in two, the first part in the garret and the second in the Latin neighborhood; then La Barriere d’Enfer and finally the garret again. Between these last two acts, there was another one conceived to better show the audience the breakup between Mimí and Rodolfo: it was supposed to be a party organized by Musetta in her courtyard. Puccini opposed it fiercely: another mass scene, another party, it was all too similar to the previous act and would have created a double of the Latin neighborhood scene, growing the opera out of proportions. The first act was split into two giving the opera the formal and beautiful geometry of opposition, the first two acts being lighthearted and joyful and the last two being somber and grievous.

The ever-present Ricordi had his sayings too: his was the suggestion, for instance, to have Musetta sing in the third act the same waltz theme from act two, only off stage; he also pushed Illica to cut on redundant historical details increasing the neat brevity of the action and making the characters and their stories universal.

Finally, in 1895, after much doing, undoing and redoing, Puccini was satisfied with the dramatic canvas. Giacosa was working on the verses, and, as mentioned above, that caused more work. But none of this comes out in Puccini’s music, or in the libretto, where everything seems to flow naturally and flawlessly.

Puccini - the poetic of La Bohème

Mimí: the voice of innocence

The characters underwent various revisions as well, particularly the female ones: in Murger’s work Mimí and Musetta are very much alike, material and fickle. Apparently inspired by a woman named Lucile, in Chapter XIV of the novel, Mimí is described as follows:

Her face seemed the first sketch of an aristocratic countenance, but her features,extremely fine in outline, and as it were, softly lit up by the light of her clear blue eyes, wore, at certain moments of weariness or ill-humor, an expression of almost savage brutality, in which a physiologist would perhaps have recognized the indication of profound egotism or great insensibility.

Of course, this would have been unacceptable in the opera: the audience needs someone to root for, someone honest: we then forgive Mimí for her brief breakup with Rodolfo, justified by the fact that she wants to protect him. This is not the character of Mimí in Murger’s work, it’s the character of Francine, a peripheral and somewhat marginal episode in the novel. But it is Francine that inspires the Mimí of the opera, her pureness, sadness and doomed fate: an ideal of feminine on stage, delicate and fragile, and yet passionate.  

Musetta: the voice of fire

Stripped of almost all her coquettishness, Mimí needed someone to balance her character out; this is how Musetta is described in the novel:

Mademoiselle Musette was a pretty girl of twenty who shortly after her arrival in Paris had become what many pretty girls become when they have a neat figure, plenty of coquettishness, a dash of ambition and hardly any education. After having for a long time shone as the star of the supper parties of the Latin Quarter, at which she used to sing in a voice, still very fresh if not very true, a number of country ditties, which earned her the nickname under which she has since been immortalized by one of our neatest rhymsters, Mademoiselle Musette suddenly left the Rue de la Harpe to go and dwell upon the Cytherean heights of the Breda district. She speedily became one of the foremost of the aristocracy of pleasure and slowly made her way towards that celebrity which consists in being mentioned in the columns devoted to Parisian gossip, or lithographed at the printsellers.

It certainly seems very close to the character portrayed by Puccini: Musetta’s fiery temperament is antithetical to Mimí’s shyness: her entrance is the entrance of a diva on the stage and is everything but subtle. She’s loud, proud, ostentatious, she wants all eyes on her while she does as she pleases with everything and everyone. Her entire persona is immortalized in one of the most famous arias of the opera: Quando m’en vo’

Quando m’en vo soletta per la via,
la gente sosta e mira
e la bellezza mia tutta ricerca in me,
Da capo a piè.

Ed assaporo allor la bramosia
sottil che da gli occhi traspira
e dai palesi vezzi intender sa
alle occulte beltà.

Così l’effluvio del desìo tutta m’aggira,
felice mi fa!

E tu che sai, che memori e ti struggi,
da me tanto rifuggi?

So ben:
le angoscie tue non le vuoi dir,
non le vuoi dir, so ben,
ma ti senti morir!

When I walk all alone in the street
people stop and stare at me
and examine my beauty
from head to foot.

And then I savor the cravings
which from their eyes transpires
and from the obvious charms they perceive
the hidden beauties.

So the scent of desire is all around me,
happy it makes me!

And you who know, remembers and yearns
you shrink from me?

I know why this is:
You do not want to tell me of your anguish,
You don’t want to tell me, I know,
But you feel like dying!

The lusciousness of the lines wraps Musetta’s role as the bad girl, a flaky and egoistical coquette opposed to the good girl model of Mimí. However, the appearance of a bad girl hides a sweet nature which we learn to appreciate in the finale of the opera. Mimí herself points out her goodness to Marcello, and when she expresses the desire to have muffs to keep her hands warm, Musetta offers to sell her earrings to pay for it. She even becomes pious, praying sottovoce for Mimí. A definitive transformation from the original Musetta.

Final thoughts

There is so much more to La Bohème than just pretty melodies: the power of the story and the universality of the characters made it such that it became one of the most performed operas ever. There is a part of all of us in those people: our flaws and our merits, our daily struggles, or, simply, our battle to remain human in spite of everything we have to face.

Source and resources:

[1] Michele Girardi: Puccini: His International Art, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 2000, pp. 99-144 [qui la versione in Italiano]


Cover photo by Cristian Newman

Post photos by Louis BlytheViktoria Hall-WaldhauserZachary NelsonPeyman NaderiElias Schupmann


About the author

Gianmaria Griglio

Gianmaria Griglio

Composer and conductor, Gianmaria Griglio is the co-founder and Artistic Director of ARTax Music.

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