(Image is from Baz Luhrmann's Broadway production of La Boheme from 2002, I do not own any rights.)
As the main stream world decorates, shops, and bakes for the holiday season, the plot of the most popular opera gears up to begin, with Giacomo Puccini's famous La Boheme opening to a scene on Christmas Eve.
Everyone knows (or finds out soon enough) that Mimi is dying. Certainly, it's tragic because she's young and vivacious, and contributes simple beauty to the world around her. But that's not the real tragedy. It's sad indeed, but her reality was relatively common in the 1830s, when the story takes place. The real tragedy lies with Rodolfo; and the unsung hero[ine] of our story, Musetta. (We'll discuss her later.)
Rodolfo is a young poet, a rebel Bohemian, handsome, charming, and poor. His type is not the usual trope for a heteronormative romantic lead, but Mimi falls in love with him anyway. Throughout the opera, Rodolfo shows a complete inability to take responsibility for his life and earn a living with his craft. In fact, through much of the show he wrestles with writers' block, or burns his work to have heat in their home. So of course, when the landlord comes to collect rent in Act I, he leaves empty handed; then Rodolfo and friends escape from the Cafe Momus without paying the check in Act II. It seems bills never get paid, food is scarce, the house is freezing, and Rodolfo is content to wallow in poverty as a poet who doesn't have any writing to sell.
He is a deadbeat, hiding behind the guise of being an "artist". But he's handsome and charming and a passionate lover, so everyone should be thankful he's bringing happiness to Mimi's final weeks of life, right? WRONG.
La Boheme takes place when women were entirely economically dependent on men. Mimi, with her terminal tuberculosis, desperately needed a doctor. There was no cure at that time but her life could've been more comfortable, if not prolonged, with treatment. Rodolfo couldn't afford any medical care for him, her, or anyone else -- not even by the end where she was desperately in need. So Mimi leaves Rodolfo by the start of Act IV to take a wealthier lover, in an attempt to save her own life. Rodolfo even seems to go along with it, since they agreed to stay together until the springtime at the end of Act III: "Sempre tua per la vita... Ci lascieremo alla stagion dei fior... Vorrei che eterno durasse il verno." [Translates to "Always yours for life... That's what we'll cry when the flowers bloom again... I wish forever the duration of winter."]. So come spring, she found herself a man with a bank account after forlornly declaring that she was Rodolfo's for eternity.
Let this sink in: Rodolfo would rather lose her to another man than turn his life around to even attempt to earn money to help her. Mimi fell in love with a man who'd rather her bang someone else to save her life, than grow up to help her stay alive. He didn't even try. As she hoped to live, she had no choice but to find another man. Therein lies the foundation of the tragedy.
It is an age-old story of a man with Peter Pan Syndrome, reluctant to do what he needs to grow up. This problem still persists (I am not saying all men are like that, or even most -- but I'm sure all of us could name "that guy", who talks a big game but never makes any moves to deliver), but at least women are now economically empowered, more so than ever. Today, Mimi could take Rodolfo in and support him, or kick him by the wayside to live the single life, or search for a man who's less of a boy -- without fearing financial destruction. But these options weren't available to our Mimi -- she could embroider for money to scrape by, and/or find a man to pay for anything else she might need. That's it.
That's not to say she didn't genuinely love her Rodolfo. If money had been the only driving factor, she wouldn't have stuck around to hear the end of "Che gelida manina" during their first meeting, and certainly wouldn't have responded with her own aria. He made her happy with their sizzling chemistry (refer to O soave fanciulla from Act I for some face melting sparks), and she returned to spend her final moments with him when it became clear that her life was ending and her boyfriend's money couldn't help anymore.
As she lay on the bed dying in Act IV, her friends panicked to see her so frail, and -- instigated and organized by Musetta -- pooled their resources to be able to afford a doctor. Mimi complained of feeling cold, and Musetta brought her a muff, which she hands to Mimi over Rodolfo's shoulder.
"Oh come e bello e morbido. Non più, non più le mani allividite. Il tepore... le abbellira... (a Rodolfo) Sei tu che me lo doni?" she asks. [Translates to "Oh, it is nice and soft. No more, no more will my hands be uncomfortable. The warmth... the fur... (to Rodolfo) Is it you who got me these gifts?"]
Before he can reply, Musetta interjects with one syllable that changes the tone of the entire opera and says, "Si."
Mimi is delighted, extends her hand to Rodolfo, and says, "Tu! Spensierato! Grazie. Ma costera." [Translates to "You! Carefree! Thank you. But it's expensive."]
Rodolfo begins to cry. Mimi comforts him, then closes her eyes for the last time, completely contented.
Our unsung hero, the beautiful but promiscuous Musetta -- who's also in love with a fairly deadbeat yet charming artist, whom she keeps leaving for better financial opportunities -- steps in to save the day, yet gives Rodolfo the credit. She recognized the unmet emotional needs Mimi had of him, and knew how significant the gesture would be in her final moments. Rodolfo begins weeping, perhaps because his beloved's last memory of him is a lie; and because Musetta had stepped up to do what he could not bring himself to do. As a result, she gave Mimi the parting gift of believing her beloved had finally grown into the man she needed him to be. Mimi died in a state of bliss because of Musetta's insightfulness and generosity.
Rodolfo never actually stepped into any adult responsibility. Aside from loving Mimi, he never actually helped her. He'd carry that guilt with him for the rest of his life. Therein lies the tragedy.
Two people fell in love in a time period where a romantic connection was also an economic decision, and one of the people refused to uphold his end of the bargain. La Boheme is a brilliant work, and an almost-overplayed cliche in the classical world, because of Puccini's ability to pace his storytelling, his unparalleled genius in illustrating emotion through orchestration, and his understanding of the subtleties of so many facets of the human experience. I can only hope to be privileged to help share it in its entirety with an audience someday.