An Illustration — From La Bohème

Mimi and Rodolfo
Act I of La Bohème

Here’s an example of how romance can be awkward when you’re dealing with three levels of “you.” It will probably make you appreciate the fact that in modern English, we only have one form, equally good for strangers, friends and lovers.

Think of the left bank of the Seine: Paris about 1870. The guy is Rodolfo; the girl is Mimi. The story is written in Italian, with its three levels of “you” — formal (lei), intermediate (voi) and intimate (tu). Mimi has just moved into the apartment next to Rodolfo’s in the top floor of an old and cold left-bank building. It’s winter. Mimi knocks on Rodolfo’s door to ask for help. She has dropped her key and can’t find it in the dark. As they grope around in the dark outside in the hallway, searching for the key, their hands meet.

This is Grand Opera, so of course, it’s time for singing. He goes first, telling her all about himself, and then it is her turn, and then both sing a soaring love duet to end the first act. This all will take about 15 minutes or so. But here was the librettist’s puzzle: “How do we get them from being perfect strangers (formal form) to acquaintances (intermediate form) to lovers (intimate form) in just fifteen minutes? In real life, this might take days, weeks or even months!”

Here’s how he did it: They both start at Level 1 (formal): When he touches her hand in the dark, he sings, “How cold is your little hand! Let me warm it for you.” The “you” is implied in the super-polite, third-person, formal form (Che gelida manina, si la lasci riscaldar). He sings, “I will tell you briefly who I am (Le dirò con due parole chi sono). The “le” is the most formal indirect object pronoun form for “you.”

A couple of minutes into his explanation, he tells her that he was living a carefree life, but then “two beautiful eyes entered” it. They “came in with you … and in my dreams.” This “you” is suddenly at Level 2, the intermediate form (Entraron’ con voi purora …). The “voi” is the less formal, more friendly form for “you” in Italian.

When his part is over, Rodolfo asks Mimi if she would like to speak. He uses the Level 2, “voi” form: “Vi piaccia dir’?” Mimi, being proper, does not accept his verbal prod towards Level 2, but stays at the formal, Level 1 form throughout her segment. At the end, she sings, “I don’t know what else to tell you, I’m just your neighbor who has come at this inopportune hour.” This “you” is still “lei” (Level 1).

So starts the love duet, with Rodolfo at Level 2 and Mimi still in the starting blocks at Level 1. Rodolfo goes right to the issue. He opens with “O soft young woman! O sweet face surrounded by the moonlight! In you I see the dreams that I would always want to dream!” The “you” is in the intimate form (In te raviso il sogno che io vorrei sempre sognar!) He started the duet already in third gear — Level 3 intimacy.

This time, Mimi does take a cue from him, and moves up one notch to Level 2. After they share a few measures of “the sweet heights of soul-trembling love,” he tries to kiss her, and she sings, “No, for piety’s sake!” He answers, “You’re mine!” (using a Level 3 “you”). She answers, “Your friends await you.” This “you” is now in Level 2 (Vi aspettan’ gli amici). Clearly Rodolfo is on the right track.

For the remainder of the love duet, Rodolfo clings to Level 3 and Mimi to Level 2. But at the very end, he sings, “Tell me that you love me” (Che m’ami, di’). And she answers, “I love you” in Level 3 terms (Io t‘amo). So, finally, right at the conclusion of Act I, both lovers are at Level 3! They walk together off-stage and sing Amor’ three times, and the curtain falls. You can just imagine Rodolfo thinking, “Whew! That was hard!”

English-speaking Americans may be dubious about the subtle symbolism of the three levels of speech in the first act of this well-known love story. But the librettist’s dilemma was real; and it was resolved cleverly and with great style. Be assured that these nuances of Levels of Speech were not lost on Italian-speaking audiences over the decades — all people who had to struggle with courtship in the context of three levels of “you.”