A tiny apartment in Paris in the 1830s
Rodolfo and Marcello are hard at work in their attic apartment. It is bitterly cold. Setting down his paintbrush, Marcello observes that it is difficult to survive as an artist when you never sell any work. Rodolfo agrees. They can barely afford food or rent, let alone firewood for their little stove, and Rodolfo must burn the precious pages of his play to heat the apartment. Soon their roommates Colline and Schaunard arrive. Schaunard has just earned some money, and invites his friends to a café for dinner. Their excitement is dampened by the arrival of their landlord, Benoit, who reminds them that they owe him three months’ rent. Not wishing to lose their dinner money, the friends give Benoit a glass of wine, ask him if he has any girlfriends, and then (when he answers yes) declare him a womanizing scoundrel and throw him out. Marcello, Colline, and Schaunard leave for the café. Rodolfo, who has to finish some writing, promises to join them soon.
Rodolfo sits down to write. Suddenly, he hears a knock at the door. It is a young woman, who introduces herself as his downstairs neighbor and asks him to relight her candle. Rodolfo notices she is out of breath. She assures him it is nothing to worry about. Rodolfo lights the candle and the young woman turns to go, only to discover that she has dropped her key. Just then, a gust of wind blows out both her candle and Rodolfo’s. As they search for the key in the dark, Rodolfo begins to tell her about himself. He says that he has long called himself a poet––but never truly understood poetry or beauty until he saw her. She tells him her name is Mimì, and that she lives a modest but happy life sewing silk flowers. They have fallen in love. Rodolfo’s friends shout to him from the street, and Mimì shyly asks if she can go with him to the café. He happily agrees. As the door closes behind them, they can still be heard singing a duet of love.
The Café Momus
That same evening
The streets of Paris are filled with people celebrating Christmas Eve. Vendors hawk candy and sweets, a band plays music, and children crowd around the fabulous wagon of the toymaker Parpignol. Rodolfo buys Mimì a pink bonnet. The friends find a table at the café and Rodolfo introduces them to Mimì. Colline and Schaunard are pleased to meet her but Marcello is skeptical, since his relationships always start out with sweetness and joy but end in bitterness and rage. Marcello is still grumbling when his ex-girlfriend, Musetta, appears. Although Musetta now enjoys fancy clothes and carriage rides on the dime of her rich new boyfriend, Alcindoro, she secretly misses Marcello and decides to win him back. She noisily enters the café and begins to sing. When she is sure she has Marcello’s attention, Musetta declares that her foot hurts and tells Alcindoro to go buy her a new pair of shoes. While he is gone, she makes up with Marcello, and even tells the waiter to give Alcindoro the friends’ dinner bill. The curtain falls on general revelry and good cheer.
The Barriere d’Enfer (one of the toll gates at the edge of Paris)
A few weeks later
Marcello and Musetta have found work at a tavern at the edge of Paris. One cold dawn, Mimì comes looking for them. She tells Marcello that she and Rodolfo have been fighting because Rodolfo accuses her of flirting with other men. Marcello says that Rodolfo is presently in the tavern and asks if Mimì wants to see him, but Mimì says no and hurries away just as Rodolfo appears. Rodolfo tells Marcello that he no longer loves Mimì, but Marcello is skeptical. Finally, Rodolfo tells Marcello the truth: Mimì is very ill, and the damp cold of his apartment is slowly killing her. He hopes that if he pushes her away she will find a new boyfriend who can afford to take care of her. Mimì, standing behind a nearby tree, hears everything. She confronts Rodolfo and tells him its over. But then, agreeing that winter is an awful time to be alone, they decide to give the relationship one more try.
The attic apartment
The following spring
Marcello paints and Rodolfo writes. Both have broken up with their girlfriends. Marcello has recently seen Mimì, who he says was wearing fine clothing and riding in an elegant carriage. Rodolfo pretends to be happy for her, but he is actually heartbroken. When Colline and Schaunard arrive the four friends sit down to dinner. Suddenly, Musetta appears at the door. She has brought Mimì, who is now so sick she can barely climb the stairs. Musetta gives Marcello her earrings to sell so he can buy medicine and a muff for Mimì. Colline decides to pawn his overcoat to help with the expenses and Schaunard goes with him. Left alone, Rodolfo and Mimì recall the happy days they spent together. The friends return. Musetta slips the muff onto Mimì’s hands. Mimì thanks her, then closes her eyes. At first Rodolfo thinks she is sleeping, but the scared silence of his roommates reveals all: Mimì is dead. Collapsing next to her lifeless body, Rodolfo cries out Mimì’s name.