The Café Momus in the second act
of Puccini's La Bohème must surely be one of the most famous of
all operatic restaurants. Briefly, it is Christmas Eve in
the Latin quarter of Paris. Rudolfo, Marcello, Colline, and
Schaunard, four high spirited but impecunious artistic types are
going out on the town. Rodolfo also brings his new flame Mimi
(whose real name, of course, is Lucia). Against a distracting
background of street urchins, toy sellers, and marching bands,
the fivesome enjoy a boisterous good time at their favourite
enlivened by a chance encounter with Marcello's old flame
Musette, in the company of her current sugar daddy, Alcindoro.
The evening ends triumphantly with our heroes stiffing Alcindoro
with the bill. Thus having our spirits raised, we are properly
set up for the remainder of the opera and its rendezvous with
poverty, domestic discord, and pulmonary tuberculosis.
The entire act takes place in or
just outside the Café Momus. In most productions, the place is a
sidewalk café, so as to permit the street sellers, stage bands,
and whatnot to come and go without straining the creativity of
the stage director. There is a lot of stuff taking place, yet
the entire act takes only twenty five minutes
Trivia fans will note that there is
another hospitality establishment in the opera. The third act,
at the Porte d'Enfer, occurs outside an unnamed tavern where
Marcello is painting a mural. However, when one speaks of
restaurants and La Bohème, one is speaking of the Café Momus.
The Café Momus is a bustling little
enterprise in the artistic Latin Quarter with tables spreading
out onto the sidewalk and positively bursting with ambiance. It
seems this should be a mixed blessing in the restaurant
business, however, since all sorts of street peddlers flog a
variety of foodstuffs right up to the tables. Oranges, dates,
hot chestnuts, toffees, whipped cream, fruit pies, nougat,
coconut milk, and plums from Tours are all available without
buying them from the restaurant. In the theatre we usually
see tasteful decor and obsequious waiters following the Parisian
We do not have a complete idea of
the menu at Momus, but the fare is rather middle of the road to
upscale. We hear some customers ordering beer and coffee, which
is modest enough, and Colline shouts for sausage, presumably as
an appetizer. For the main course, the fellows ask for roast
venison, turkey, and dressed lobster, along with rhenish and
table wines. Mimi settles for créme caramel (ain't she
sweet). Marcello somehow seems to have acquired a plate of stew
by the time Musetta starts to throw a tantrum for his benefit.
It is interesting to compare the
operatic restaurant to the original model in Henry Murger's
Scènes de la vie de Bohème. The amazing thing is how closely
Puccini recreated the atmosphere of Murger's novel in the opera.
However, there are differences in detail.
To begin with, Murger's heroes
prefer an upstairs room where their boisterous behaviour often
chases out the paying customers. They are regular and barely
welcome guests and the landlord only reluctantly provides food,
in the hope that for once they have some money. Whereas
Puccini's party is basically having a boys' night out (along
with Mimi), Murger has an outing of couples. Rodolfe and Mimi,
Marcel and Musette, Shaunard and Phemie (who does not appear in
the opera), and Colline being the only solo. Murger's
characters, in honour of the occasion, insist on having the
ladies order. For drinks Musette wants champagne (it makes a
noise) and Phemie goes for parfait amour (good for the stomach).
As for Mimi, she wants Beaune (in a basket). When Rodolfe asks
if she has lost her senses, she astounds him by saying 'no, but
I want to lose them'. This is not quite Puccini's Mimi! As for
food, Mimi starts off with ham, Musette with sardines with bread
and butter, and Phemie with radishes with some meat with them.
For the next couple of hours the
waiter tramps up and down stairs bringing food and drink.
Musette eats English fashion, changing her fork after every
mouthful. Mimi drinks every type of wine from every type of
glass. Schaunard had a quenchless Sahara in his throat. The
final bill is for twenty five francs and three quarters, which
of course they could not pay. Instead of Puccini's Alcindoro,
Murger has our friends rescued by a wealthy patron who has been
watching them all evening and considers the cost of the bill
good entertainment value.