A Puccini Pairing - La Bohème and the Wines of France

Dec 18, 2009

Back in March of this year, I discovered that Austrian film director Robert Dornhelm had made a movie adaptation of Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème.

The best part: Rolando Villazon and Anna Netrebko (the 'Golden Couple' - pictured below) played the starring roles.

I watched the preview on YouTube, falling in love with my dear Anna all over again and nearly sobbing (you have to cry… it’s the most painful of love stories ... and I'm a big baby so that doesn't help either).

I searched on-line, I dropped in at Sikora's (I was living out west at the time), one of the greatest classical music stores in Vancouver (let alone Canada), trying to find out if I could get a copy. No dice.Unavailable for the time being.

Then, recently, after moving back to Ontario, Amazon sent me an email, letting me know it was available. I snapped it up and yesterday watched it for the first time.

The only problem: I forgot to bring the wine.

Puccini was Italian down to the bone. He loved his food, his women and his fast cars. But if you look at his most famous operas, most of them take place abroad. Turandot is set in China, Madame Butterfly in Japan with Madame Lescaut, La Bohème and Tabarro all taking place in France. Gianni Schicchi (famous for “Mio Babbino Caro”) and Tosca are perhaps the only ones that truly take place in Italy.

So how do you match wine with a Puccini opera?

In the case of La Bohème I decided to match the region with the opera’s setting, namely Paris. Like I did with my ‘'Verdi and the Wines of Veneto' entry, I am going to give you my best advice on how to pair wine with the scenes and arias of Puccini’s most prized and passionate opera. (Note: I've provided some links to certain arias and duets. These are not scenes from Dornhelm's film version,  however, but here to help give an idea of the music and beauty of Puccini's work. I've also tried to find the best videos featuring both Villazon and Netrebko.)

Christmas Eve, Paris, the 1830s, the land of bohemians – poets, philosophers, paintings and writers. Rudolfo and Marcello are living in a garret with their friends, Schaunard and Colline. Rudolfo is trying to write a play while Marcello is painting the Red Sea, hoping the image of the desert will make him feel warm. They set the first few pages of Rudolfo’s play on fire, sizing Colline’s books up for potential fuel.

There’s no more fire in the fireplace, that is until Schaunard shows up with warm goodies, wine and logs to get them toasty again.

For the first half of Act I, I recommend an easy going Chinon or Bourgueil red wine from the Loire Valley. There are numerous ones to try. Cabernet Franc is the main grape (with some Cabernet Sauvignon thrown in for good measure in Chinon) and you can expect deep, delicious raspberries and herbal notes. Considering the first scene takes place in a garret around Christmas, the winter frost haunting the panes, chill your red to give you some impression of what nineteenth century room temperature wine must taste like.

It is also a wine to savour and sip for the best part of Act I:

There’s a knock at the door and who should be there, our tragic seamstress, Mimi. In the darkness, she misplaces her key. On their knees, searching, hands patting the floor, their hands meet.

Now you must prepare yourself. The next three pieces will warm your heart and hopefully, bring cathartic tears to your soul.

There’s Rudolfo’s Che gelida manina in which the poet comments on Mimi’s cold hand, his writing and his life. He tells her there are thieves in her eyes and she has stolen him.

Following this beautiful aria is Mimi’s reply, Si. Mi Chiamono Mimi “Yes, they call me Mimi but my real name is Lucia.” She talks about working as seamstress, working with embroidered flowers. When spring comes she’s alone (and when she says this, the music simply soars and as I write this, those cathartic tears are creeping out of my eyes).

Then the deal breaker – these two lonely souls, equally filled with longings and dreams sing together – O Soave fanciulla. Life is here to love and let’s love. Take my arm, come with me, he says. (In the film version, I like how Dornhelm takes them right into the bedroom after this scene – love and consummation at first sight, so to speak).
 Publicity poster for La Boheme - if you love opera, check out Opera Chic's blog

Ah, the honey moon stage. Rudolfo introduces Mimi to his friends at Café Momus. The streets are alive. It’s Christmas. The toymaker is selling toys, the parade is on its way.

But poor Marcello. Who should walk into the café but Musetta, his former lover and her latest catch, another sugar daddy, the old codger Alcindoro. Musetta, to inspire jealousy but also to attract attention sings her famous waltz, Quando me'n vo. She tells the crowd of café patrons that she indulges in their furtive glances, she wants to feel empowered by the desires of men. Marcello, broken -hearted suffers silently in his seat.  But all is not lost. Musetta, feigning a foot injury sends Alcindoro off to buy her some new shoes. Marcello rises to the occasion and re-declares his love for her. As for the bill, well the Bohemians can't pay. Musetta tells the waiter to put it on Alcindoro's bill. 

This is a scene for Champagne. The Bohemian are celebrating, they have a little bit of money. Champagne is the great sparkling wine from Northern France, a blend of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. The town of Rheims is the region’s centre.

There are many to chose from and each Champagne House has its different styles – there’s Veuve Cliquot, Mumm, Moët & Chandon and Krug to name the most famous. Considering this is an opera about love, I recommend a rosé Champagne from Moët & Chandon.

From Café Momus to a tollgate outside Paris, we’re in the midst of the dark New Year. The holidays are over, the honey moon stage has passed and the two lovers are separated. They fell in love with the illusion of each other. They wanted something, they looked and found it but it wasn’t really enough. The beginning of the act will remind you of the garret of the first act so get a blanket.

Mimi comes looking for Marcello. She needs to talk. Rudolfo is here, he tells her but no, she can’t see him. Why? Well, Mimi explains, he’s afraid of my dying. I’m getting worse.

Mimi leaves, ducks around the corner and listens to Rudolfo and Marcello talk. Mimi gasps, coughs, Rudolfo sees her and the two have a difficult discussion, she wanting to leave, he wanting her to stay (Donde lieta usci).

But it all works out. They’ll love again, the spring is coming, she won’t be alone. Marcello and Musetta have a comical tiff which balances the scene.

Considering the scenery, the snow fall, the fading hope, the plight of these bohemians, I recommend a wine from the south of France. Perhaps a Fitou, a blend of Carignan, Grenache and Syrah or a Minervois (Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre). Southern France is right on the Mediterranean. The region gets plenty of sun and with such an ideal climate, the region has become a great ‘wine lake’. The wines tend to be fuller in body, spicy and rich but are also easier for the budget conscious. A nice comfortable alternative to expensive reds from Burgundy and Bordeaux and a reminder of sunnier days.

We’re back in Paris. Rudolfo and Marcello are both happy the spring is here but they don’t have anyone and sing a haunting tune (O Mimi, tu piu non torni). For some reason Mimi has gone off with a Japanese stock broker (it’s not really explained very well in the opera but that’s opera for you).

Colline and Schaunard come in and there’s some playful horsing around. But the joking doesn’t last. Musetta has brought Mimi to them. She isn’t doing well.

This is the end. Their final love duet – Sono andati? Rudolfo prepares for the worst, holding Mimi's cold hand. The friends give the former lovers time to themselves, pawning off possessions to get money for medicine and a doctor.

But it’s too late. Che ha ditto – Mimi’s death, a scene in opera that is incredibly moving but so simple. This isn’t Wagner’s Liebestod, this isn’t Violetta’s final flourish in La Traviata. Death comes in quietly, unnoticed, when Rudolfo’s back is turned. For a brief second we had hoped, we had prayed but this is opera, this is our modern cartharsis.

What wine to drink for such a scene?

I can’t think of any.

At this point I’ll take a glass of Cognac to calm my nerves. Cognac is the third largest vineyard region in France. The grapes are sold to distilleries, fermented into wine, then double-distilled into cognac. Ugni Blanc (Trebbiano) accounts for most of the wine used.

Following distillation, the Cognac is added in Tronçais or Limousin oak for a minimum of two years. The brandy (from the Dutch brandewijn—"burnt wine") mellows and softens and takes on flavours from the wood. You’ll find on Cognac labels the number of years the brandy has been aged - *** or VS (two years), VSOP (four years) and XO (six years).

I can’t think of a better way to recover from such a magnificent and heart-breaking work of genius. I’m going to watch this opera again soon – perhaps on Christmas and with the right wines. 


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My focus is mainly on wine culture, history and education. I love the stories behind wine - the people, places and the regional personalities of the wine-countries around the world.

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