A gentle love story, and heart-rending ending which never fail to reduce the audience to tearsDuring the winter of 1892-1893, shortly before the première of Manon Lescaut, Puccini came up with the idea of basing an opera on Henry Murger's picaresque novel Scènes de la vie de bohème. This resulted in an almost immediate controversy with Ruggero Leoncavallo, who claimed that he had precedence over the subject. Subsequently disputes between their respective editing companies, Sonzogno and Ricordi took place as well as between the two newspapers 'Il Secolo' and the 'Corriere della Sera'. Puccini continued with his project nonetheless, but work in general on La Bohème proceeded slowly, partly because Puccini spent much of the next two years travelling abroad to supervise performances of Manon Lescaut in various European cities.
The two librettists chosen for Puccini's opera were Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. The former had already completed a prose scenario for the opera by June 1893 and the latter wholeheartedly supported it. The scenario consisted of four acts and five scenes and by the end of June, Giacosa had completed the versification and presented it to both Puccini and Ricordi, who confidently proclaimed to the 'Gazzetta musicale' di Milano that the libretto was ready to be put to music. Ricordi was a little premature, however, and Giacosa was requested to revise certain parts of the opera, an effort he found to be disagreeable. Consequently he voiced his desire to abandon the project. Ricordi, however, succeeded in convincing him to remain with it.
The librettists did not agree with him but finally Illica came to a compromise and proposed a solution, which was to introduce a scene with the four bohemians, similar to the beginning of the opera, instead of having the final act open with Mimì on her deathbed. Puccini also suggested that they replace the Barrière d'Enfer scene, which was difficult to set to music, with another episode from Murger's book, but Illica disallowed it. Illica, at one stage, requested that the Café Momus scene be removed but Puccini refused to eliminate it, defending his portrayal of the Latin Quarter and also Musetta's scene which was his own personal invention. Puccini became so absorbed in the modifications of the libretto, that Giuseppe Giacosa despaired that the composer would never be content.
The score was finished in December 1895. The première was programmed for the Teatro Regio, Turin as Ricordi's scores were not accepted by Edoardo Sonzogno, the publisher who was managing La Scala in Milan. Maestro Arturo Toscanini conducted the première in Turin on February 1st, 1896. The production was received with mixed feelings from the public, favourable to some of the opera and less so to other parts. The opera was nonetheless widely circulated, being performed in theatres such as the Teatro Argentina in Rome and the Teatro Politeama Garibaldi in Palermo, Sicily. Most premières of La Bohème outside Italy were performed in smaller theatres and in the vernacular of the country. In Paris, the opera was performed by the Opéra-Comique in 1898 as La vie de bohème.
Over the years, the opera has become one of the audience's favourites and is thoroughly appreciated for the masterpiece it really is. It's gentle love story, and heart-rending ending never fail to reduce the audience to tears. Famous Arias from La Bohème include Rodolfo's aria 'Che gelida manina' ('Your tiny hand is frozen') and the duet between Rodolfo and Mimì 'O soave fanciulla' (sweet, gentle maiden). These musical pieces have become some of the most internationally performed extracts from the classic opera repertoire. La Bohème remains, with Tosca and Madama Butterfly, one of the central pillars of the Italian repertory; its centenary performances in February 1996 confirmed its perennial appeal.