Shortly after the unparalleled success of Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci, the composer began drafting a libretto based on Henri Murger's novel, Scènes de la vie de Bohème. Apparently, Leoncavallo did not intend to set the text himself, for he offered it to Puccini knowing that Puccini was in search of a verismo book similar to that for Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana. Puccini sought a text elsewhere, however, and Leoncavallo decided to go ahead with the project himself, but not before finishing his I Medici -- part of a projected trilogy, Crepusculum. As a result, Puccini completed his own La bohème first, and Leoncavallo's effort has always been overshadowed by its success. Timing, however, is not the only reason for the greater success of Puccini's opera.
Billed as a Commedia lirica, Leoncavallo's La bohème was first performed on May 6, 1897, at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice, with success. The piano/vocal score was printed the same year. In 1913, Leoncavallo presented an equally successful revised version, staged with the title Mimi Pinson.
Leoncavallo's La bohème is more "realistic" than Puccini's. For instance, in the second act, Schaunard (the musician) performs one of his compositions, which is actually a parody of a Rossini cantata. There is nothing like this in Puccini's score; in fact, the audience sees no evidence of Schaunard's musical ability. During this number, the orchestra remains silent as Schaunard accompanies himself at the piano, lending the impression of an evening with a young composer and his friends.
Through quotation, Leoncavallo further stresses musical realism. When the painter, Marcello, first sets eyes on Musetta, he is inspired to sing an aria from Meyerbeer's Huguenots, which was very popular in the mid-1890s and would have seemed appropriate to those in the audience. Musetta and Mimi are associated with chansons and other café-style music, while the artistic abilities of all the main characters become apparent when they join Schaunard in both his Rossini parody and a "Bohemian hymn."
The "comic" in Leoncavallo's opera is in the first two acts, in which there is a sense of the carefree existence of the Bohemians. A drastic change in mood occurs at the beginning of Act Three, after which comes the realization that the first two acts present a façade -- the Bohemians' lives are actually miserable. There is no such stark contrast in Puccini's conception.