The fact that this is one of the world’s two most popular operas (together with Verdi’s Aida) can certainly be attributed partly to the fact that it is so amenable to cast and stage by opera standards that you can pretty much put it on in a barn. After all, Linda Ronstadt once sung the role of Mimi, and while by all accounts she didn’t do a very good job, the fact that she could hit the notes at all shows how much easier La Boheme is to sing than your average opera.
But despite the generations of opera snobs who have turned their noses up at this work, the piece has charms and even glories quite apart from its ridiculous ease of production. For one thing, this is the only operatic tragedy I know of that is basically a comedy in its first two acts. This is hardly an uncommon construction for plays, and is by no means unheard-of in musical theater (witness such titles as Camelot and Into the Woods), but operatic tragedies are nearly always tense and dramatic from the very beginning. Even La Traviata, Boheme’s most direct predecessor at bringing organic drama to the opera genre, features a heroine who is quite transparently going to die from the first curtain, something La Boheme downplays for its own consumptive heroine. The untroubled romantic bliss and abundant humor of the first half helps give a far greater impact when the story turns to heartbreak, because we’ve seen these people when they were genuinely happy and thus really feel their sense of loss.
For another, despite not featuring the brutal violence that is supposedly a crucial feature of the genre, Boheme represents the ultimate achievement of the Verismo school of Italian opera. After all, the real goal of verismo was to capture the realistic existence of ordinary, everyday people, and then to exalt their feelings and problems with the same operatic lyricism previously reserved for larger-than-life characters. Well, Boheme does this better than any other opera, elevating simple young love and heartbreak among impoverished would-be artists to a sublime and epic beauty.
This of course leads us to the biggest reason Boheme is popular—the music. The big arias are ravishing and, for all their utterly accessible wealth of melody, deceptively sophisticated, but Puccini also excelled in creating elaborate musical scenes, something he is rarely credited for. The second act of the opera, for example, is essentially all one unified dramatic scene made of flowing melody, with even its big aria, the legendary “Musetta’s Waltz”, being seamlessly woven into the overall structure. Puccini also made perhaps the most impressive use of reprise in all of opera, giving the central lovers a deathbed duet made up almost entirely of echoes of their ecstatically romantic music in the first two acts. This makes the scene far more touching than any other death duet composed of entirely new music could be, and it genuinely feels like a real conversation between a loving couple about to be parted forever.
That’s what makes La Boheme special among the operatic canon…it makes more believable and organic use of realistic human emotion than any other opera in history except perhaps its direct predecessor La Traviata. It’s one of the most popular operas because it’s one of the greatest, and for all the flack Puccini gets from the snobbier critics, he is still undeniably one of the true geniuses of the form.