An attic apartment in Paris's Latin Quarter on Christmas Eve.
The poet Rodolfo and his roommate, Marcello, a painter, are trying to work but it is too cold to concentrate. Rodolfo offers to burn his manuscript to stay warm. Colline, a philosopher, arrives as the play burns. All three try to warm themselves. Schaunard, a musician, arrives soon after with a bounty of food and wine. As the four toast their good fortune, Benoit, the landlord, arrives to collect rent, which is past due. The four friends invite him in, offer him wine and reassure him they will pay what is owed. With ingenuity they distract and confuse Benoit, ultimately forcing him out before he is able to collect. To celebrate the holiday and their luck, they decide to dine at Café Momus. Rodolfo stays behind to finish an article, promising to join them shortly.
There is a knock on the door. Rodolfo opens it to find a beautiful young woman, Mimi at the threshold. She asks Rodolfo for a light for her candle. He invites her in. She faints suddenly, dropping the key to her apartment. When she recovers, they begin to search for her key but both of their candles go out. They are left with only moonlight to guide them. The two search for Mimi's key, and in the darkness, Rodolfo touches her hand. They begin to confide in one another, sharing their hopes and dreams. Rodolfo's friends call from below, asking him to join them at Café Momus. Rodolfo takes Mimi's arm, and they leave for the café.
Outside the Café Momus, the street is bustling with holiday shoppers and vendors.
On the way to the café, Rodolfo buys Mimi a bonnet. The two join his friends at a sidewalk table outside Café Momus. The toy seller Parpignol is followed by a crowd of children. A little while later, Musetta, Marcello's old flame, arrives accompanied by Alcindoro, a wealthy, older gentleman. Although Marcello feigns indifference, he finds it increasingly difficult to ignore Musetta. To gain his attention she sings about her captivating beauty. No longer wanting Alcindoro's company, Musetta cries out that her shoe pinches her. She demands that Alcindoro run and buy her a new pair. The moment Alcindoro is out of view, Musetta runs into Marcello's arms. They join their friends and are swept up in celebration. By the time Alcindoro returns, the group has left the café and he is left with the check.
Early dawn on a bitter, cold February morning outside a tavern near one of the city gates.
Customs officers search people coming into the city for work. Mimi, in a weakened state, seeks out Marcello to ask for his help. She confides in him that Rodolfo's jealousy is the cause of their constant fighting. Rodolfo comes looking for Marcello, and Mimi hides. She overhears Rodolfo explain why he is so tormented. Mimi is ill, and his poverty is weakening her condition. Rodolfo hears Mimi cough and rushes to her. At the same time, Marcello hears Musetta laugh and goes inside the tavern to find out what she is up to. At first, Mimi and Rodolfo try to end their relationship but they are still deeply in love. They decide to stay together until the springtime, when it will be easier to separate. Meanwhile Marcello's worries are confirmed; he catches Musetta flirting with a stranger. He drags her out of the tavern to confront her, they quarrel, and Musetta storms off leaving Marcello behind. Meanwhile, Rodolfo and Mimi depart arm and arm, blissfully reunited.
The following summer in Marcello and Rodolfo's attic apartment.
Marcello and Rodolfo are trying to work but each is distracted by thoughts of the woman he loves. The somber mood changes when Colline and Schaunard arrive to share a paltry meal. The four of them forget their worries, improvising a sword fight when suddenly, Musetta arrives with Mimi. Mimi is dying and wants to be with Rodolfo again. Musetta and Marcello leave to find a doctor. Colline leaves to sell his overcoat. Schaunard follows them out. Rodolfo and Mimi are left alone. They recall their first meeting. The others return with medicine, but it is too late. Mimi has died. At first, no one dares tell Rodolfo. Looking at their faces, he realizes she is gone.
Courtesy of Boston Lyric Opera