Melba aficionado ROGER NEILL takes a close look at La bohème and discovers that Dame Nellie was instrumental in making it one of the most popular and well-loved of Puccini’s operas.

How was it that La bohème became one of the world’s favourite operas? For more than a century it has been a permanent fixture in the repertoires of opera theatres large and small all around the world.

To be honest, you are not going to discover the answer to this question in any of the several fine biographies of its composer, Giacomo Puccini. Most of these appear to assume that the work achieved its preeminent position simply as a result of the inherent excellence of the story, the characters and the music.

But is that really the answer? After all, its world première at the Teatro Regio in Turin on 1 February 1896 was hardly what might be called a triumph. ‘La bohème, since it makes no great impression on the soul of its audience, will leave no large imprint on the history of our lyric stage,’ wrote the critic of the main Turin newspaper, the Gazzetta Piemontese.

What’s more, La bohème, Puccini’s fourth opera, followed three others that scarcely marked him out for any great success.

The first, the one-act Le Villi of 1884, had its première at the Teatro Dal Verme in Milan, when the composer was twenty-seven. It received only four performances that season and has scarcely held the stage since. Revived at Naples in 1888, one critic described it as ‘simply an imitation of Wagner’. Le Villi was followed in 1889 by Edgar, which had its world première at La Scala in Milan. It was panned by the critics and disappeared from the stage after only two performances.

Puccini’s third opera, Manon Lescaut, although the libretto had five different writers, showed more promise. Puccini and his publisher Ricordi were able to assemble a first-rate cast with a leading soprano of the day, Cesira Ferrani, as Manon. The première at the Teatro Regio in Turin in 1893 mustered thirty curtain calls from an enthusiastic audience, together with favourable reviews from the critics. But while it certainly made its mark in Italy, Manon Lescaut was slow to find its place elsewhere.

All in all, then, a promising composer, but no world-beater at this stage.

There was much riding on Puccini’s next, his fourth. Would La bohème provide him with the success he sought? Would it even compete successfully with the other new work of the same name by his contemporary, Ruggero Leoncavallo? As with Manon Lescaut, Puccini and Ricordi attempted to bring together an outstanding cast. His leading lady as Mimì was, again, Cesira Ferrani. And this time, Puccini had as his conductor the brilliant young Arturo Toscanini. But Puccini was in the event not at all happy with the rest of the ensemble.

La bohème was composed by Puccini between 1893 and 1895 to a libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. It is based on Scènes de la vie de bohème (1851) by Henri Murger.

So why did it not hit the mark, particularly with the critics? Toscanini himself summed up the rather lukewarm reception it received: ‘Not one of those critics had understood that La bohème was a completely new opera, as much in the orchestra as on stage. They were not aware that they had heard a masterpiece and demolished it without thinking about it.’

The public’s response was sufficiently positive for the work to be given in other leading Italian houses—in Rome, Naples, Palermo, Bologna and elsewhere—before landing at La Scala in Milan in March 1897. It fared reasonably well in some cities, less well in others, but then, during the remainder of Puccini’s lifetime, it was to drop out of the repertoire in Italy.

And yet, in the years following its première, it was to rise internationally to the very top. How did this happen, given its unpromising start?

Its extraordinary ascent was in the main thanks to the efforts of one woman. Somehow or other, the great Australian diva, Nellie Melba, had decided that Puccini was ‘the coming man’ and that La bohème was a masterwork. Quite what was the stimulus for this admiration is still rather hard to pin down.

She had not seen La bohème in Italy. It is most likely that she had first seen the production of the work (received in lukewarm fashion) given three performances by the Carl Rosa Company in English at Covent Garden in London in October 1897. It had toured major cities in England and Scotland before arriving in London. The Mimì in that production was American soprano Alice Esty, the Rodolfo Umberto Salvi.1 Did Melba send for a score from Ricordi in order to study it?  

Postcard Puccini study 2Puccini’s study at Torre del Lago near Lucca

Whatever the mechanism, Melba decided that she should be Mimì, and in August of 1898 she took herself off to Lucca, Puccini’s home town in Tuscany, in order to study with the composer. Aged thirty-seven and at the peak of her career, Melba may well have realised that her pre-eminence in bel canto roles—in Donizetti, Rossini, Gounod, Verdi and others—must become more and more difficult to maintain as the years went by. This new verismo school of operas, with Puccini at its heart, would be so much easier on the voice and might enable her both to make a transition from the old to the new, and at the same time to stretch out her career at the top.

She studied for two hours every day with Puccini while she was in Lucca:

He thoroughly explained his ideas of the music; we rehearsed it bit by bit, and my score is full of his pencil markings and annotations … I have great faith in Puccini’s gifts. I delight in singing his music.

Melba told the ghost-writer of her memoirs, Beverley Nichols, that Puccini had said to her: ‘You sing my music. You don’t sing Melba-Puccini.’

Instead of returning immediately with her newly-mastered role to her main artistic homes—Covent Garden in London and the Metropolitan Opera in New York—Melba decided instead to tour the work with a specially assembled company, performing in cities across the United States. The company was formally named the Ellis Opera Company, after the manager of the tour, Charles Ellis, but it was clear to all that this was in reality Melba’s show. 

The tour opened in Philadelphia on 17 December 1898, but as Melba was a victim of a flu epidemic in the city, the first night of La bohème had to be postponed until 30 December. Neither audiences nor critics were expecting a new opera which lacked brilliant sets and costumes, had ‘no gorgeous, concerted movements’ and ‘practically no chorus and no arias’. But gradually, as the tour progressed through the eastern cities and the mid-west, Americans responded more and more warmly to the work. And by the time the company reached San Francisco, expectations were running high. On 15 May 1899, La bohème opened there at the Grand Opera House. Melba wrote: ‘They responded from the very first.’ And a local critic noted approvingly that the opera was ‘simple to the last degree, without trill or cadenza.’

So, having been personally coached by the composer, and having performed Mimì throughout a lengthy American tour, Melba felt ready to present the work with the resident company at Covent Garden. This she did, opening on 1 July 1899 to tremendous acclaim. Punch magazine declared it ‘the hit of the season’. Her Rodolfo for these performances at Covent Garden was the great Italian tenor, Fernando De Lucia, the first of a regal procession of partners for Melba in the role.

10 Royal Opera House Covent Garden 2Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

In perhaps the most purple of purple passages ever committed to paper about a performance in opera, the Scottish prima donna (and Director of Chicago Opera), Mary Garden, wrote in her memoirs:

I have no hesitation in declaring that Melba had the most phenomenal effect on me of any singer I have ever heard. I once went to Covent Garden to hear her do Mimì in La bohème … You know, the last note of the first act of La bohème is the last note that comes out of Mimì’s throat. It is a high C, and Mimì sings it when she walks out of the door with Rodolfo … The note came floating over the auditorium of Covent Garden: it left Melba’s throat, it left Melba’s body, it left everything, and came over like a star and passed us in our box and went out into the infinite. I have never heard anything like it in my life, not from any other singer, ever.

Melba’s biographer, John Hetherington, summarised the Mimì-Melba-Covent Garden connection in 1967:

The love affair between Covent Garden audiences and Bohème began then and has never ended. The love affair between Melba and Mimì was nearly as lasting; she continued to sing it until her retirement. Nothing else in grand opera seems to have so pleased her as did Mimì’s scintillating and tuneful music. It fitted her voice and temperament and spirit …

From Covent Garden, Melba then took La bohème for a second coast-to-coast tour across America, this time with the Metropolitan Opera Company, now starting on the west coast in Los Angeles and eventually arriving at New York. It opened there triumphantly on 26 December 1900 but even now, the piece had its detractors. A leading New York critic, Henry Krehbiel, wrote: ‘La bohème is foul in subject, and fulminant but futile in its music.’ As usual, audiences had the last word. The work has now, 123 years later, had over 1,350 performances by the Metropolitan Opera company, having overtaken Aida as the most performed in their repertoire.

From time to time, if she felt that La bohème was too brief, having offered an audience short measure for their money, Melba would re-appear and give them one of her party-pieces, usually the dazzling (and extremely demanding) ‘Mad Scene’ from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. And if they still refused to depart, the piano would be pushed on, centre-stage, and the diva would accompany herself in ‘Home Sweet Home’.

In 1902, at Monte Carlo, under the supervision of the composer, she gave her first performance with a new partner as Rodolfo – the dazzling young Italian tenor, Enrico Caruso. Melba-Caruso nights in La bohème were to become the hottest of hot tickets over the coming years.

Melba had laid firm claim to Mimì. And she was not to relinquish her grip on the role at Covent Garden until her grand Farewell there on 8 June 1926. In New York, having signed up for Oscar Hammerstein’s rival Manhattan Opera Company in 1907, Melba had to give way to others as Mimì at the Met—among the new pretenders being Marcella Sembrich, Geraldine Farrar, Frances Alda and Amelita Galli-Curci.

At her own London home in Great Cumberland Place, near Marble Arch, in March 1904 Melba was to make the first of several best-selling gramophone recordings of Mimì’s Act 3 ‘Addio’. It is no accident that Melba’s tombstone at Lilydale in her native Australia, bears the simple and affecting last line from that aria: ‘Addio senza rancor’—farewell, no hard feelings.   

Other important opera houses around Europe were slower to take up La bohème. In Vienna, the Theater an der Wien had introduced it in October 1897 with Frances Saville as Mimì, prompting a famously scathing review of the work from Eduard Hanslick, but the Court Opera only admitted the work in November 1903. The house’s director, Gustav Mahler, was an admirer. Comparing Puccini’s work with its contemporary namesake from Leoncavallo, Mahler wrote: ‘One bar of Puccini is worth more than the whole of Leoncavallo.’

It was Paris that bucked the trend. La bohème’s arrival there—at the Opéra-Comique in June 1898—was supervised by the composer. The production was an immediate success and remained consistently popular with French audiences. By 1951 La bohème had already received its thousandth performance at that house.

MM 18827.800x800Bohème in Melbourne by Spencer Shier, 1924. State Library Victoria, Melbourne.

Mimì was a role that Melba was to sing with the Melba-Williamson Opera Company in their three Australian tours—in 1911, 1924 and 1928. In 1911 there were performances at Her Majesty’s Theatres in Sydney and Melbourne with New Zealand soprano Rosina Buckman as Musetta and Irish tenor John McCormack as Rodolfo. In 1924, Melba by now 63, she opened the Melbourne season as Mimì with Italian tenor Nino Piccaluga her Rodolfo, then in Sydney another Italian took that role, Dino Borgioli.

Melba was 67 when she returned for the last time to Australia with her full company in 1928. She did not sing in Melbourne but returned to the stage in the last three acts of La bohème on 27 August with the two Australians who had sung with her at her Covent Garden Farewell the previous year—Browning Mummery as Rodolfo and John Brownlee as Marcello. She sang the same programme at a matinée in Melbourne, then again on 2 October at the Theatre Royal in Adelaide—her last appearance as Mimì. 

In a letter written to his confidante, Sybil Seligman, in February 1921, Puccini heaved a sigh of relief that another singer will get the chance to sing the role at Monte Carlo: ‘I’m sorry that Melba is ill, but I think that Mimì will be pleased to be unsung by her!’

Although the opera is still regularly treated with some disdain by high-minded critics, it remains to this day the mainstay of opera houses around the world, beloved of audiences everywhere, whether played by run-of-the-mill ensembles or by great stars like Nellie Melba and Enrico Caruso.

© Roger Neill, 2023

A first version of this essay appeared in the 2012 program of Glyndebourne Festival Opera. Revised, it appears here by permission.


1. Umberto Salvi came to Australia (and New Zealand) with Musgrove’s English Opera Company in 1900-01; he was one of the soloists at a reception celebrating the opening of the Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia in Melbourne, 9 May 1901.


Listen to Melba

Puccini: La Bohème / Act 3—Addio dolce svegliare alla mattina (Quartet). With Nellie Melba, Browning Mummery, John Brownlee, Aurora Rettore. Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, conducted by Vincenzo Bellezza. Recorded live at Melba’s Farewell from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 8 June 1926.