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In the Latin Quarter of Paris, on Christmas Eve, two poor bohemian friends, Rodolfo (a poet) and Marcello (a painter) are in their garret trying to keep warm by burning the pages of one of Rodolfo’s rejected manuscripts. The mood in the garret becomes cheerful when they are joined by their roommates Colline (a philosopher) and Schaunard (a musician) who bring food, drink, and firewood. The celebration is interrupted when the landlord Benoit arrives demanding rent. The four friends distract the landlord with wine and, when he admits to being a bit of a ladies’ man, they feign outrage on behalf of his wife and send him packing. He leaves empty-handed.
Three of the friends leave for Café Momus, leaving Rodolfo who promises to join them when he finishes a piece of writing. He is interrupted by a knock on the door from a neighbour, Mimì, whose candle has burned out. The ailing seamstress collapses. Rodolfo helps her to the door, re-lighting her candle. Then Mimì realizes that she has lost her key. As they search for her key, both candles blow out and their hands touch in the darkness. Instantly, they fall in love.
In the street market outside Café Momus, Rodolfo buys Mimì a bonnet. When she draws the attention of some men, Rodolfo is motivated to declare his love for her. He introduces her to his friends and they all eat together. Musetta, Marcello’s former lover, arrives with Alcindoro, the wealthy state councillor. Musetta sends off Alcindoro so that she can try to capture Marcello’s attention, and she is soon back in his arms. Before they all depart, Musetta arranges to have Alcindoro pay their bills, and they disappear into the crowd following the parade that has come through the square.
At dawn, in the snowy outskirts of Paris, Mimì comes to where Marcello and Musetta are living. She finds Marcello outside the tavern and expresses her distress over Rodolfo’s jealousy. Mimì hides when Rodolfo comes out of the tavern. Rodolfo tells Marcello that he intends on leaving Mimì because he cannot tolerate her interactions with other men. When Marcello questions his jealousy, Rodolfo reveals the real reason he wants to end things with Mimì is that her health will only worsen in the poverty they share. Mimì comes out from her hiding place, and together they decide that winter is no time to be alone and they will part ways in the spring. In the meantime, Musetta comes outside, but Marcello is angered at her flirting with other men. They argue and decide to split up.
Back home some time later, Rodolfo and Marcello are both unhappy with the separation from their lovers. Colline and Schaunard arrive with food and wine, and the friends stage a dance and a mock duel to lighten their spirits. Musetta bursts in to tell them that Mimì is outside and requesting to spend her last hours with Rodolfo before she dies. Rodolfo brings her in and accepts her request. All try to make Mimì as comfortable as possible. Musetta sells her earrings, and Colline sells his coat in an effort to help Mimì. While they are alone, Mimì and Rodolfo reminisce about their time together. When the others return, Musetta gives Mimì a muff to warm her hands and prays for her. While waiting for the doctor, Schaunard discovers that Mimì is dead. When Rodolfo realizes this, he is overcome with grief.
(l – r) Heidi Stober as Musetta, Dimitri Pittas as Rodolfo and Katie Van Kooten as Mimì in the Canadian Opera Company/Houston Grand Opera/San Francisco Opera co-production of La Bohème. Photo: Felix Sanchez © 2012 (Houston Grand Opera)