A Close Look at Rodolfo’s Aria “Che Gelida Manina” From Puccini’s La Boheme

Rodolfo, a poet, revels in exalted words and figures of speech, yet he often uses these in a half-joking way, as if to mock his own immature desire to be an “artist” all the time. He is never more of a poet than when trying to woo Mimi in his aria, a subtle masterpiece of musical characterization (and effective seduction!).

The voice enters not with melody, but with repeated notes: “Che gelida manina,” marked “dolcissimo” and “pianissimo.” Since these notes have no melodic profile, expression must be found in inflection and tone of voice. The coldness of Mimi’s hand gives Rodolfo an excuse to hold it, and the first syllable of “gelida” may be gently emphasized. With “Aspetti, signorina,” Rodolfo addresses Mimì directly and more urgently with the imperative: having established that it is useless to search for the lost key, and that at least they can enjoy the moonlight, Rodolfo must move the subject to more personal matters. In some editions, syncopated chords accompany the high B-flat “son,” but these are not authentic—the orchestra has a single sustained chord. (The editor’s intention was probably to support the singer’s high note, but this support can be accomplished on the piano by a discreet tremolo—a closer approximation to the orchestral sound.)

Coming in too soon with the forte “chi son?” following rehearsal 31 seems to be a universal tendency. There is a delay between the orchestra sounding the C on the second beat, and the tenor singing the note after the third beat. Yes, one could “count” the beats. Finding a dramatic reason for this delay, however, makes it much easier to “feel” the time, and the singer will be less reliant on mechanically counting. Rodolfo has his audience of one prepared—now he must make the best case for himself as a lover. Augmented chords do not define a tonality, and the augmented chord that separates the two occurrences of “chi son?” indicates Rodolfo’s hesitation at this crucial moment, as he prepares his line. (No, the tenor need not know what an augmented chord is; he need only listen for it and feel its suspended quality!) Rodolfo provides his first two rhetorical questions with real answers, the third with a wry evasion: “How do I live? I live.” Notice how Puccini sets off this last word “Vivo,” preceding it with a pizzicato chord. I would not presume to dictate the tone of voice this word should have—various readings are plausible. But it must have some implication—perhaps he mocks his rebellion against materialism, or perhaps he glories in it, or perhaps both at once.

From “in poverta mia lieta” through the aria’s climax, “speranza,” we have one long, elaborate, whimsical simile: Rodolfo possesses the “riches” of words, but occasionally two thieves come and rob all the “jewels” from his “safe.” We learn that these thieves are, in fact, a pair of beautiful eyes. Therefore, the projection of the meaning demands a separation between “due ladri” and its appositive: “gli occhi belli.” This need not be a breath, just a slight delay. If, however, the tenor makes a separation merely because he was told to do so, or in emulation of some famous tenor or other, it will convey nothing. The separation should result from Rodolfo’s urgent desire to make Mimì understand his outpouring. He continues this simile, pretending to regret the entrance of the thieves, dispersing his poetic dreams. And then, we get to the punch line: “But I don’t mind the theft, because my poetic dreams are replaced with: the hope” (of becoming Mimì’s lover). “Ma il furto non m’accora” is verbally the climax of the aria, the point at which he makes his wordplay serve his immediate purpose: to overwhelm Mimì with his charm, humor, and intelligence. If it is sung gently and insinuatingly, the glorious climax on the high C will be enhanced by contrast with it. In the phrase “poichè v’ha preso stanza,” “preso” is the past participle of “prendere”—it should be sung with a voiced s (American z), and not confused with the word “presso.” In the final phrase, the orchestra score gives a fermata on the second note of the triplet.

This is one of the few arias that is frequently transposed, in this case, down a half-step. There is a danger, however, that the lowered tessitura may tend to make one sing more heavily. If you decide to lower it, you may have to restudy it carefully in the lower key.

Joseph Smith

Joseph Smith is a highly respected New York coach, particularly known for helping singers with difficult and unfamiliar scores.