The Poet in Love: On "La Boheme"

Synopsis of the Opera

In an apartment in Paris’ Latin Quarter reside four struggling intellectuals/artists: Rodolfo, a poet; Marcello, a painter; Schaunard, a musician; Colline, a philosopher. We begin in an apartment with only Rodolfo and Marcello at work, complaining about the cold. It is winter, and firewood is expensive. So Rodolfo willingly burns a drama he wrote for warmth. Colline comes and joins the fun of using another’s art for warmth.

After this is done, of course, Schaunard appears with wealth earned from music lessons and spreads his newfound wealth around. The roommates decide they’re going to leave for a Cafe in order to celebrate. Rodolfo stays behind to work on an article, and after they have left, he hears a knock at the door. That’s when he meets Mimi, a fragile girl with lovely eyes who has consumption. She makes a living by embroidering flowers. They fall in love immediately.

Everyone mentioned in this synopsis so far meets up at the Cafe, where they run into the girl who is Marcello’s ex, Musetta. Musetta wants to live well, so she has no problem leading men on to take as much as they will give away. She gets a man she’s about to ditch to pay for everyone’s meal as she runs off yet again with Marcello.

We skip to some time later, and Mimi talks to Marcello privately about how she can not tolerate Rodolfo’s jealousy any longer. Marcello tells Mimi to leave when he sees Rodolfo coming, and Mimi “leaves” but somehow manages to pick up on every single word Rodolfo and Marcello exchange. Rodolfo explains how his jealousy is really a cover for the fact that he’s scared she’s going to die. He explains that this is driving him crazy, and he must break up with Mimi. Mimi at this point blows her cover and the two talk passionately about how they must break off their relationship with no regrets. Meanwhile, Marcello, in the same scene, gets wind of Musetta flirting with any number of men. Near the end of the scene, Rodolfo and Mimi are singing quietly about what has been, and how it has been beautiful, while Marcello and Musetta violently fight over who is a tyrant and who is a whore.

Both couples break up.

The final act has Colline land a job as one of the King’s Ministers, with Schaunard still “in the money.” Musetta breaks in on all 4 roommates frolicking, which was spurred by Colline’s news and some extra food brought by both philosopher and musician, to tell them that Mimi is going to die. Mimi is brought into the room, and Rodolfo and her get some time alone and renew their love, before she dies. It does look like a reconciliation between Musetta and Marcello occurs, but all four others besides Rodolfo have their backs turned in grief on the weeping Rodolfo and dead Mimi as the opera ends.

So What is This About, Really?

It looks like 3 of the 4 intellectuals/artists have achieved happiness at the end. Why is the poet excluded?

There’s something peculiar about love for Mimi that contrast with Musetta brings forward. Musetta makes no secret of the fact she plays with desire, that she lives in/for the erotic. Mimi isn’t like that at all; she prays, although is lax about church attendance. She is thrilled by a pink bonnet, and doesn’t whine in any way like Musetta does (as a ruse, but why is the ruse believable?) when her (Musetta’s) shoe breaks. Mimi says that spring is all she longs for, truly.

The girl, Mimi, is perfection. One of the puzzling things about this opera is what kind of nutcase would burn his own play at the beginning. At first I thought this was a cute nod to where true poetry lies: not in the story the poet creates, but in the love that is lived. And at the Cafe, Rodolfo does declare that while he is a poet, Mimi is poetry herself.

But what does Rodolfo love? Burning a play is a sign of disgust. He wants something more, and that is why he became a poet, I would conjecture. I remember when I used to write unsent love letter after love letter – I might have hundreds of those things lying around, actually. What I wanted then was the perfect words with which to express love, the words that would be irresistible. I guess I was looking for the perfect words, words that had to be accepted because there was no way to challenge them.

Rodolfo probably wants something of the same. What is attractive about Mimi is that she is so fragile, that she walks the line between this world and the next, between the fleeting and the eternal. The pink bonnet covers her head and allows him to focus on those eyes he loves so much. That her hand is cold, and will almost always be cold despite efforts to warm it, makes the eyes that much more attractive.

So Rodolfo’s love is a love which can never be consummated, and I suspect that’s the deep reason why he feels guilty about Mimi – not that she’s going to die and he will be alone, but that he loves her only because of her delicacy. What is even more tragic about this love, of course, is that it is the sort of love those of us who are not poets grow into. We’ve all seen widows and widowers after a lifetime of memories are all they have left. Some have the strength to carry on, many don’t. I have no idea what these people go through. I don’t want to have any such idea, it must be the most frightening thing in a sense. But someone’s love has turned to despair in such situations, I think, because it is hard to live life again after having been part of something that much greater, that was always, in the background, oh-so-fragile.

The calmness of Rodolfo and Mimi’s ideal love allows for the reconciliation of Musetta and Marcello, and makes the wealth of the musician and the power of the philosopher look like puny things. Sexual desire, wealth and power don’t compare to the love of perfection and all its tragic consequences, and that I think is the significance of the poet’s love in this opera.

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