La Bohème – Perspectives on the Role of Rodolfo

Steven Harrison

La Bohème is unquestionably one of the three most beloved operas ever written. Its beauty lies in the soaring melodies and emotionally stirring orchestration, which evokes feelings seldom felt in one evening of theater. However, the heart of this opera lies in the characters portrayed. They each possess an unusually real, true-to-life recognition. Everyone who witnesses a performance of La Bohème walks away humming the memorable Puccini phrases and carries the tragic pain and abundant joy of the characters’ journey forever in their hearts. No one can forget the first time they experience this romantic opera because the story is about love and loss and universal themes identifiable by everyone in all walks of life. It reveals a moment in time which we have all experienced or will soon learn about all too well.  La Bohème is a story as honest as can be told.

In the center of this intimate story is the character Rodolfo. He is a young man. A poet. A dreamer. In some ways he is wise beyond his years and capable of intense emotion.  In other ways, he is naïve and limited in his ability to feel. He is living a life of deception and will soon face its reality, the meaning of love, the ability to love, being forced to face his own fears and endure existing in a world as a man who will learn firsthand, the monumental knowledge of living as a conscious adult.

We first meet Rodolfo in his humble flat, which he shares with three other friends who are all struggling artists. A bed is the centerpiece of his world. The bed upon which he lives, writes, sleeps, eats and will soon love. He is a young man, barely 20 years of age. He lives by his wits and writes for a local newspaper to earn enough money to survive. His passion is poetry and he has the ability to wax poetic about any small detail. He is equally comfortable being a central figure among his group of friends or being a loner who takes pleasure in his solitude. Rodolfo is also a fun-loving prankster and lives for the joy of each moment. We learn all of these facets about him within the first 15 minutes of the opera and then suddenly, his world changes. He is left alone and admits to feeling uninspired to write. Could it be due to the meaningless article this sensitive poet is forced to compose for small wages? Or does this perhaps open a question of something missing within his world? There comes a knock on the door and fate changes his life forever. The beauty of the music here (Ove sará) leaves both Rodolfo and the audience with an uncanny euphoria which conjures memories of first love. The impetuous ardor of youth and the feelings of abundant joy and immortality are felt through harmony and melody. It is one of the first moments that Puccini creates which makes Rodolfo seem so recognizable and the moment takes our breath away. Rodolfo and Mimi crawl around in the dark searching for a missing door key; however, the key they eventually find through the help of each other’s love opens something much more profound than a door. Isn’t it also ironic that even though they pretend to be searching for a missing key, it is inside Rodolfo’s pocket all along? Perhaps the message here is trying to tell us that even though we search for answers to questions and try to unlock the mysteries of life, the truth lies within our consciousness. We simply need to reach in and find what is already there.

Every story is made interesting by conflict and every conflict stems from a character’s lack of knowledge or unconsciousness. Rodolfo’s unconscious behavior and conflict becomes apparent once Mimi’s illness begins to consume her. Rodolfo begins to withdraw. Her fatal disease is something which all of the Bohemians have seen before and are very aware of. The consumption from which Mimi suffers is spreading throughout Paris and even though it is evident that her life will soon end, Rodolfo tries to deny it. He, too, is consumed, however, not by virus, but, by fear. Rodolfo is afraid of what he has obviously seen before, but, never before seen by someone so close to him. Instead of showing and admitting his love and caring for her until she takes her final breath, Rodolfo projects blame and faults her. He mocks her and insults her in front of his closest friend, Marcello. However, it is Marcello’s insight into the situation that gives Rodolfo a wakeup call. With tough love, Marcello forces Rodolfo to look inside himself and admit to what his true feelings really are. As if it were imitating real life, the characters’ relationships in La Bohème reveal the way in which we help each other and become better people through relationships. Rodolfo receives from Marcello the rude awakening he needs and the help to see the truth about Mimi’s situation. Mimi’s love similarly helps Rodolfo reach into his heart and acccepts the fact that she is dying. She, in death, helps Rodolfo deal with this profound, tragic loss and move ahead into the future. As if a mirror were held up to his face, Rodolfo’s friends and lover help him to begin his journey into awareness and consciousness. Mimi’s final farewell begins with a bittersweet prank, which reminds us of the lost key’ scene Rodolfo plays on her. She feigns sleep to clear the room and have her last moment alone with the boy she found and the man she loves. They sit, alone, upon the bed where they first met and reminisce.  Two people, sharing memories, reliving moments and saying good-bye. Finally, when Mimi’s life fades into the abyss, Rodolfo reverts to old habit and walks away. He is not by her side at the moment she dies. Whether this is by design or coincidence, it is up to the observer to decide. However, once Rodolfo is forced to admit the tragic end of his lover’s life, he screams, accompanied by music which reaches into our depths, and he unleashes a cry which reverberates in the hearts of everyone who witnesses La Bohème . Rodolfo’s final plea for her to awaken is not granted. The harsh reality of her death becomes evident and his scream is underscored by the music which accompanies Mimi’s final farewell (Sono andati?) describing the sunset that has darkened her light. The symbolic message here reminds us that even in death, the words and memories left behind by those we love remain with us forever.

Rodolfo is, simply, one of opera’s most beloved characters because we feel his pain, share his joy and recognize his need and fear of love. He is someone we know because he is a part of all of us.