November 8, 2015

So whatever became of those four bohemians, anyway?

La Bohème ends with the death of Mimi, but life is just beginning for the other five principal characters. Do you ever wonder what happened to them later in life? What were they all doing ten years later? Will any of the four struggling artists end up "making it" in their chosen fields? Will Musetta settle down with Marcello or leave him for good to live the good life on the dime of another wealthy geezer?
Colline is pretty much done with these.

I think I know, because the libretto offers hints. Let's indulge in a little speculation. C'mon, it'll be fun!

I give him a 0% chance of becoming a writer. It's. Not. Gonna. Happen. He's constantly "talking the talk" about being a poet, but he doesn't exactly "write the write", so to speak. In his aria, he boasts: "Who am I? I'm a poet." When introducing Mimi to his friends in Act 2, he says "I am the poet and she is the poetry". And even when they're breaking up in Act 3 and Mimi cites the "bitterness" of their relationship, he can't resist playing the poet card again: "...which I, poet that I am, would rhyme with caress".

But all this is belied by what happens every time he tries to buckle down and get something down on paper:

Nothing. Bupkis. Squadoosh. He has three observed opportunities to write:
  • At the top of Act 1 as the curtain is rising, Marcello the painter is standing at his easel, busily working on his painting of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea. Rodolfo? He's staring out the window at Paris, "looking at the skies gray with smoke".
  • Later in Act 1, when the other boys are ready to head out to Café Momus for Christmas dinner, Rodolfo stays behind to finish an article for some journal called "The Beaver" (sounds like a college newspaper, doesn't it? Is Rodolfo the editor of his campus paper?). After about 10 seconds of "I'm a busy boy" flute music, he says to no one in particular, "I'm not in the mood". Big surprise! And finally,
  • In Act 4, the curtain rises to provide a bit of deja vu: we're back in the garret, with Marcello painting and Rodolfo writing. Predictably, Rodolfo gives up, this time blaming his "terrible pen". Yes, I know, Marcello also quits, but by now he's got more credibility. We learned in Act 3 that he's been working as an artist at that tavern.
Some writer! He's a "poet" in the same way that your waitress at Olive Garden is an "actress" because she was an extra in a music video three years ago. Add to all this the fact that Rodolfo was quite sanguine about throwing his five-act play into the stove for a few seconds of heat, and you have to conclude that something is lacking in this would-be Verlaine.

My theory: Mimi's death left him with permanent writer's block as he realized how badly he'd blown it in his treatment of her. Eventually, he became a school teacher, sharing his love of poetry with children. Nothing wrong with that. 

As for romance, I see him having one or two more affairs, but with no more success than he found with Mimi. A jealous nature is one of those personality traits that is pretty difficult to fix in adulthood, wouldn't you say? It might always end up being a deal-breaker with his romantic partners. But he'll be a fine teacher!

I think he makes it as an artist. He may or may not go down as an immortal, but I feel pretty confidant he'll earn a decent living in the field of his choice. The opening moments make it clear that his work ethic is far superior to Rodolfo's. He, like his friend, is freezing in the unheated apartment. But instead of grousing about it and staring out the window, he channels his frustration into his painting. He turns to his work! When Brahms was grieving about the death of Clara Schumann, he didn't stare out the window; he wrote the elegy that became the slow movement of his D Minor Piano Concerto. 

Also, as mentioned above, Marcello had a gig going for himself at the tavern. There are lots of taverns in France. He'll find another one.

His affair with Musetta? I think they end up together and get married. There's a telling and suggestive moment in Mimi's death scene. Musetta has decided to sacrifice some jewelry to pay for a doctor. Marcello agrees to attend to finding a doctor, and Musetta says, quite deliberately, "I'll go with you". It's noteworthy that the orchestra drops out completely as she delivers that line; Puccini wants to make sure we hear it. Marcello has already said to Mimi that he knows exactly how good Musetta is, and now she says "I'll go with you." This sounds Biblical to me, as when Ruth says "Whithersoever thou shalt go, I will go" in the Old Testament. It sounds like a vow of fidelity to me. Mimi's death has made both Marcello and Musetta think hard about what really matters in life.

Will they stay married until "death does them part"? That's another matter. They both have volatile, artistic temperaments. One of their spats might prove to be a camel-back-breaking straw down the road. But regardless of the longevity of their relationship, I think wedding bells will sound shortly after the curtain falls on Bohème.

Our resident musician has an advantage over his three buddies: musicians can stand on street corners and play for passers-by, and they can audition for things like orchestras and chamber groups. Schaunard seems the least caught up in the whole "woe is me" soap-opera-ish doings of the others. He scored a good-paying gig in Act 1 and is not distracted by girl-problems. He'll be okay.

It must have surprised the audience at the premiere performance of  Bohème when Colline stepped forward to sing his solo "Vecchia zimarra", as up til that moment he was a minor figure, by far the least important of the bohemians. If they were Marx Brothers, Colline would be Zeppo. So his sudden melancholy farewell to his coat stands out, which makes us suspect it must be a significant moment.

It is.

In my first Bohème post, I stressed the theme of entering adulthood; that Mimi's mortality marks the precise moment when childish ways are put aside for good and the characters face grownup realities. In my opinion, Colline is not really saying goodbye to an article of clothing; he's saying goodbye to his youth, and also to his youthful dreams of being a great scholar.

Look at the text of his solo. He mentions that the pockets of that coat held poets and philosophers. We may take it, then, that the coat represents the world of scholarly study to Colline. So when he says "I'm staying behind, you'll go on to greater heights", here's what believe he's really saying:

Someone else will wear you. Your pockets will be filled with his academic books. He will become a distinguished professor or immortal philosopher - not me. 

Colline reminds me of that creature found at every great university: the perpetual doctoral candidate. I remember a woman named Mildred from my student days at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. Mildred, who has likely passed on to the Big Garret In The Sky by now, had been pursuing her D.M.A. for several semester. That dissertation never seemed to progress. Five, six, seven semesters... and there was Mildred, just hanging around, with that degree remaining just as far away no matter how hard she swam towards it.

I would suggest that Colline is like Mildred. He's been sitting around on his butt, pawning books, buying more books, pawning those, and getting nowhere for some time now. Mimi's death is a dash of cold water in his face. It's time to stop piddling around reading books and live his life. He's going back to pitch in with the family business in whatever small town is his home.

What do you think? Disagree with me? My views of Rodolfo and Colline seem to align nicely with the ethos of verismo opera. Let's not romanticize opera characters! Let's allow ourselves to view them without rose-colored glasses! Let's give them the gift of being......  


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