The opera begins in a cold garret in the Latin quarter of Paris on Christmas Eve, 1830. Rodolfo, a poet, and Marcello, a painter, are trying in vain to combat the cold; Rodolfo resorts to using his manuscripts as fuel for the fire. The philosopher, Colline, arrives, having tried unsuccessfully to pawn some books to alleviate their poverty. As the flames die down again, Schaunard, the musician, appears with two shop-boys loaded with firewood and food, which he has been able to buy with some money he has earned from a musical engagement. They decide to go to the Café Momus to join in the Christmas festivities, but before they have time to leave, the caretaker, Benoit, arrives to collect the rent. They ply him with wine and successfully divert him into telling them about his amorous flirtations. The wine loosens his tongue and he reveals to them his extramarital adventures whereupon, feigning indignation, they throw him out of the room – without paying, of course. Marcello, Colline and Schaunard set off for the café, and Rodolfo promises to join them when he has finished the article he is writing. No sooner have they left than there is another knock at the door. It is a neighbor, Mimi, a dressmaker whose candle has blown out on the stairs. Rodolfo invites her in and relights the candle but, as she leaves, she is seized with a fit of coughing. Rodolfo offers her wine and helps her to a chair. When she has recovered, she gets up to leave, but realizes she has lost the key to her room. The draft puts out both candles, and they are obliged to search for the key in darkness. As they search for it, Rodolfo finds it but does not say so, pretending to go on looking for it until his hand touches hers. It is very cold; as he warms her hand in his, he tells her about himself. She responds sympathetically, telling him of her solitary life embroidering flowers for a living, and they quickly find themselves drawn together in mutual love. Rodolfo's friends come back to fetch him; he tells them he is coming, but has company. The two lovers set out for the café.
For Act 2, the scene moves to the terrace of the Café Momus, in a busy square full of street traders. Rodolfo buys a bonnet for Mimi, Colline buys a frock coat and Schaunard haggles over the price of a horn. Marcello laments the lack of female company, though he is surrounded by pretty ladies. Along comes the toy vendor, Parpignol, beseiged by children. As the friends sit down to eat, Musetta, a former lover of Marcello, appears on the arm of the elderly and wealthy politician, Alcindoro. Musetta, ostentatiously dressed, asks the friends to make room for her; she sings a waltz, bragging about her popularity, and then complains that that her shoe hurts. This is an excuse to send Alcindoro away in search of a new pair, to get him out of the way. She sets about provoking Marcello's jealousy, then indicates that she still loves him and a reconciliation takes place. A group of soldiers crosses the square to the sound of a march. When the bill arrives, Musetta asks the waiter to add it to Alcindoro's bill when he returns and they depart.
Act 3 takes us, some time later, to the freezing outskirts of Paris at dawn where, inside a tavern, Marcello is playing cards and Musetta is giving music lessons. Outside, Mimi appears, pale and distressed, and asks a woman to fetch Marcello. Tearfully, she tells Marcello that Rodolfo's jealousy is tormenting her and that their relationship must end. Rodolfo, who has been asleep, comes out to look for Marcello. Mimi hides and overhears Rodolfo telling Marcello that she is a flirt and also that she is very sick; although he still loves her, he must break the relationship because he cannot pay for the medicine she needs. Realizing the truth of what he is saying, Mimi breaks down in sobs, and gives her presence away. Rodolfo rushes to her and tries to calm her but, in a touching duet, the two agree to remain together until the weather improves. Marcello hears Musetta's laughter and accuses her of flirting with a stranger; they quarrel and part in fury, hurling insults at one another.
The final act takes place in springtime in the garret. Rodolfo and Marcello are trying in vain to concentrate on their work, their minds full of thoughts of their loved ones. Colline and Schaunard come in and attempt to distract them from their melancholy by staging a hilarious duel, in the middle of which Musetta breaks in, very agitated, to announce that Mimi is downstairs, too weak to climb the stairs. Rodolfo rushes to her aid and carries her in and a tender reconciliation takes place between them. Musetta tells how she found Mimi in a deplorable state asking to be taken to Rodolfo. She hands Marcello her earrings and entreats him to go with her to call a doctor, and to buy some medicine and a muff to warm Mimi's hands. Colline, for his part, goes out to pawn his overcoat, bidding it a fond farewell. The lovers are left alone and for a few moments, recapture their happiness, but Mimi is seized with a fit of coughing. The others return and Musetta tries to make Mimi more comfortable, giving her the muff to warm her hands. Rodolfo leaves her side, believing her to be resting, but the others soon realize that she has breathed her last. When he realizes what has happened, Rodolfo rushes to embrace her lifeless body, sobbing and crying out her name.
© Picture: Javier del Real
Paul McCreesh, Graham Vick – Plácido Domingo (Bajazet), Jennifer Holloway (Irene), Sara Mingardo (Andronico) – Teatro Real Madrid
Tiziano Severini, Francesca Zambello – Mirella Freni (Mimi), Luciano Pavarotti ténor (Rodolfo) – San Francisco Opera
2003 St. Petersburg Gala, celebrating the 300th anniversary of the city