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The Café Momus in Puccini's La Bohème/ OPERA/ MUSIC MAIN

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 sidewalk café, 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 stereotype.

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.

Set for La Boheme

How does the Restaurant fit into the Opera

The Café Momus in Puccini's La Bohème is one of those rare settings without which the opera is inconceivable. The restaurant itself describes for us the artistic and social environment in which the characters live and in which the drama unfolds. Here we learn who the characters are and how they react to one another. Finally, in this restaurant we are put in good spirits and our sympathies joined with these attractive characters, so as to properly prepared for the pathos later in the melodrama.

James Hill

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