Synopsis

Act One

Paris in the 1830s. On Christmas Eve in a frigid attic studio, Marcello, a painter, and his roommate Rodolfo, try to stay warm by feeding the stove with pages from Rodolfo’s new play. They are dirt poor but happy-go-lucky. Two more roommates, Colline and Schaunard, arrive with wine, cigars, fuel for the fire and a bit of money. Schaunard babbles an unlikely tale about music lessons and a dead parrot. Landlord Benoît enters to collect the seriously overdue rent but the boys distract him with glass after glass of wine. When the old lecher brags about his love for young women, the lads feign outrage, toss him out, and head for Café Momus, a favorite Latin Quarter hangout. Rodolfo stays behind to write.

There’s a knock at the door. It’s neighbour Mimì holding a blown-out candle. Rodolfo lights her candle with his as Mimì briefly faints in a fit of coughing. While searching for Mimì’s misplaced room key, both candles blow out and their hands touch. In the drafty garret, now lit only by moonlight, Rodolfo tells Mimì of his dreams. (“Che gelida manina”). Then Mimì recalls her solitary life embroidering flowers and waiting for spring. Totally smitten, (“O soave fanciulla”), they kiss and leave, arm in arm, to join their friends.

Act Two

A boisterous crowd fills the Café Momus and the square outside. Rodolfo buys Mimì a bonnet and introduces her to his friends. Ordering food and drink, Marcello tells the waiter to bring the best of everything. Musetta, Marcello’s ex-girl friend, arrives with her current admirer, an older, wealthy man named Alcindoro. Musetta, conspicuously ignores him to flirt with her old boy friend but the banter turns bitter. In a brilliant aria, Musetta brags that her beauty stops men in their tracks. (“Quando me’n vo’soletta.”) The café bill arrives but none of the young people have money. Musetta jumps to the rescue, telling the waiter that her sugar daddy will pay. When Alcindoro returns, the merrymakers are gone and a hefty bill sits on the table.

Act Three

In a tavern on the outskirts of Paris on a snowy evening, Mimì seeks Marcello’s advice about Rodolfo’s jealousy. She’s still in love but wonders if it would be best to split for a while. When Rodolfo arrives, Mimì fakes her departure and hides where she can overhear the two men. Rodolfo complains that Mimì is jealous and stubborn. He then confesses his real worry — Mimì’s incessant coughing is a sign that she’s fatally ill. Saddened by Rodolfo’s words, Mimì emerges and the two remember happy days. Meanwhile, Marcello discovers Musetta flirting with a stranger and they quarrel. The two couples end the act with a quartet of contrasts. (“Soli l’inverno è cosa da morire.”) Marcello and Musetta escalate their war of words while Mimì and Rodolfo lovingly pledge to stay together.

Act Four

It’s early spring. Several months have passed and Rodolfo and Marcello have melancholy thoughts about their girl friends. Colline and Schaunard arrive with a bit of food and water. To brighten the mood, the roommates pretend it’s a banquet, complete with champagne, and they break into a jaunty dance.

Musetta suddenly enters, saying Mimì’s in the street below, too weak to climb the stairs. Rodolfo runs down, picks up Mimì and carries her to the room. It’s clear she’s gravely ill. Musetta takes off her earrings and tells Marcello to sell them for medicine. Colline says he’ll add some cash by pawning his favorite overcoat. Musetta gives Mimì a muff to warm her hands. Left alone, Mimì and Rodolfo recall their romantic first meeting but her violent coughing ends the happy memory. The friends gather at her bedside as death arrives. Rodolfo calls out her name — “Mimì! Mimì!” — and collapses by his beloved’s lifeless body.

- Performance notes by Eugene Carlson