Act 1 - In the four bohemians' attic room Mimi (original costume design, 1896)Act 1 takes place in Paris around 1830. A group of bohemians live in a room in an attic. Marcello is painting while Rodolfo gazes out of the window. They are so poor and so cold that they burn a drama that Rodolfo has written. Colline, the philosopher, comes in shivering and cross because he had not been able to pawn some books. Schaunard, the musician of the group, arrives with food, firewood, wine, cigars, and money. He tells his friends that he has got these things because he has a job with an English gentleman. The others hardly listen as they are so hungry that they try quickly to eat the food. Schaunard interrupts them, taking the meal away, and saying that they will all celebrate his luck by having dinner at Cafe Momus instead.
While they drink, Benoit, the landlord, arrives to collect the rent. They give him lots of wine so that he becomes drunk and starts to tell the people his adventures about love. He then says that he is married, but the others throw him out of the room. The money that should have been used for paying the rent is divided among the group so that they can have a good time The other Bohemians go out, but Rodolfo stays alone for a moment in order to finish a newspaper article, promising to join his friends soon. There is a knock at the door, and Mimì, a seamstress who lives in a flat below, enters. Her candle has blown out, and she has no matches; she asks Rodolfo to light it. She thanks him, but returns a few seconds later, saying she has lost her key. Both candles go out. It is dark, and the couple try to feel their way about. Rodolfo wants to spend time with Mimi. He finds the key, but does not tell her and puts it in his pocket. In two very famous arias (Rodolfo's "Che gelida manina — What a cold little hand" and Mimi's "Sì, mi chiamano Mimì — Yes, they call me Mimì"), they tell each other about their different backgrounds. Rodolfo’s friends call for him to come. He would prefer to stay there with Mimì but she decides they should both go together. They go out singing about their love for one another.
Act 2- Latin Quarter on Christmas Eve The streets are crowded with happy people. Rodolfo buys Mimi a bonnet. The friends go into a café. Musetta, who used to be Marcello's sweetheart, comes into the cafe with Alcindoro, a rich, old man. She is tired of him. She sings a naughty song, hoping Marcello will notice her. Marcello becomes mad with jealousy. To be rid of Alcindoro for a bit, Musetta pretends to have a tight shoe and sends him with it to the shoemaker. Musetta and Marcello fall into each other's arms. Alcindoro returns with the repaired shoe. The waiter hands him the bill. He is surprised by how much he has to pay, and sinks into a chair.
Act 3 - A tavern at the edge of Paris Mimì passes through the toll gate, coughing. She finds Marcello, who lives in a little tavern near the gate. She tells him of her hard life with Rodolfo, who has left her that night. Rodolfo comes out of the tavern looking for Marcello. Mimì hides. She hears Rodolfo telling Marcello why he left her. At first he says Mimì does not love him, but then he says he left her because she is dying of an illness. Rodolfo is poor and can do little to help Mimì. He hopes that a rich man may fall in love with her and pay for her to have medical treatment. Out of kindness towards Mimì, Marcello tries to stop Rodolfo, but she has already heard everything.
She has to cough, and Rodolfo discovers her. They sing of their lost love, and agree that they should separate. They love one another so much and agree to stay together until the spring. Marcello and Musetta are heard quarreling in the background.
Act 4 - The attic room Marcello and Rodolfo are both sad at losing their loved ones. Schaunard and Colline arrive with a tiny bit of food. They pretend they are having a big feast, and they all dance. Musetta arrives with news: Mimi, who had found a rich gentleman, has now left him and is wandering in the streets feeling very ill and weak. Musetta has brought Mimi back with her to the attic room. Mimi is helped into a chair. Musetta and Marcello leave to sell Musetta's earrings in order to buy medicine, and Colline leaves to pawn his overcoat. Schaunard leaves quietly to give Mimi and Rodolfo time together. Left alone, the two remember their past happiness. They remember their first meeting. Rodolfo gives Mimi the pink bonnet he bought her, which he has kept as a souvenir of their love. The others return, with a gift of a muff to warm Mimi's hands and some medicine, and tell Rodolfo that a doctor has been called, but it is too late. As Musetta prays, Mimi dies. Rodolfo collapses in tears.
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