Opera in four acts by Giacomo Puccini. Text by Giacosa and Illica.
The first act opens in a garret in Paris, in about 183o, and shows us Marcel the painter and Rudolph the poet, from whose Bohemian mode of life the opera derives its name, at work. Alas ! there is no fire in the grate, and the cold is so intense that Marcel is about to break up a chair for firewood.
Rudolph prevents him and kindles a fire with his manuscript instead, crying : “My drama shall warm us.” The second act of the manuscript follows the first one, by the blaze of which the artists joyfully warm their half-frozen hands. The paper is quickly burned to ashes, but before they have time to lament this fact the door is opened by two boys bringing food, fuel, wine, and even money. Schaunard, a musician, brings up the rear, to whom neither Marcel nor Rudolph pays the least attention.
It seems that an Englishman engaged Schaunard to sing to his parrot till it dies, but after three days Schaunard becomes so heartily sick of his task that he poisons the bird and runs away.
He suggests that they all go out for supper, it being Christmas eve. They decide to drink some of the wine first, but they are interrupted by the landlord who demands his quarter’s rent. He soon imbibes so much of the wine that he becomes intoxicated and correspondingly jovial. After being joked about his love adventures he finds himself standing outside the door in pitch darkness. The others meanwhile prepare to go out to supper, with the exception of Rudolph, who remains behind to finish a manuscript article.
A pretty young girl soon knocks, carrying a candle and a key. He begs her to come in and be seated, and she swoons while refusing. He revives her with some wine, and she goes off with her relighted candlestick, but forgets her key, which she has dropped in her swoon, and for which she at once comes back. A draft blows out the candle and Rudolph keeps the key, while pretending to look for it. Suddenly he clasps the girl’s hand and he and she exchange confidences, while confessing their love for each other.
When Rudolph’s friends call him he invites Mimi, who is a flower-girl, to accompany him.
The second act takes place before the well-known Cafe Momus in the Quartier Latin, where Rudolph and Mimi join Schaunard and Marcel.
Rudolph has bought her a pink bonnet and introduces her to his friends, the fourth of whom is Colline the philosopher.
The party eat and drink amid the noise and bustle of the fair, when Marcel suddenly sees his old love Musette, gorgeously arrayed and leaning upon the arm of an old man. Marcel turns pale, while his friends make fun of the fantastic couple, much to Musette’s anger. She at once begins to make overtures to Marcel, who feigns utter indifference. Musette’s old admirer orders supper, in the hope of pacifying her, while she addresses Marcel in fond whispers. The others watch the scene with amusement, but Rudolph devotes all his attentions to Mimi. Musette suddenly con–plains that her shoes hurt her and sends her aged lover off for another pair. Then she proceeds to make friends with Marcel. When the waiter brings the bill, Musette tells him that the old gentleman will settle for everything after his return.
The party profit by the approach of the patrol, who causes a turmoil, in the midst of which they all escape. Alcindor, the old admirer, finds only two bills awaiting him when he returns with the new shoes. Musette has been carried away shoeless by her old friend.
The third act takes place on the outskirts of Paris called “Barriere de l’Enfer” ( The Tollgate of Hell ). To the left there is a tavern, over which hangs Marcel’s picture “The Crossing of the Red Sea,” as a signboard. The day is breaking, the customhouse officials are still sleeping around the fire, but the scavengers coming from Chantilly soon awake them.
The gate is opened to admit milk-women, carters, peasants with baskets, and finally Mimi.
She looks wretched and is at once seized with a terrible fit of coughing. As soon as she can speak, she asks the name of the tavern, where she knows Marcel is working. When he emerges from the inn she implores his help, saying Rudolph is killing her by his insane jealousy. Marcel promises to intervene, and when Rudolph comes out of the tavern Mimi hides behind the trees.
She hears Rudolph say she is doomed to die, and coughs and sobs so violently that her presence is revealed.
Rudolph remorsefully takes the poor weak creature in his arms, and they decide to make it up.
Their reconciliation is interrupted by Marcel, who is upbraiding Musette. This flighty damsel has one lover after another, although she really loves Marcel alone.
The fourth and last act takes us back to the garret, where Marcel and Rudolph are alone, Musette and Mimi having left them. They each kiss mementos of their lady-loves, when Schaunard appears with bread and herring. Gaiety is soon restored and a regular frolic takes place. Musette enters in a state of great agitation, to say that Mimi, who is in the last stage of consumption, is there and wants to see Rudolph once more. The latter carries her on the little bed. As there is nothing in the house with which to revive her, Musette decides to sell her earrings in order to procure medicines, a doctor, and a muff, for which Mimi longs.
Schaunard also goes out, so that the lovers are left alone. A touching scene follows, when Rudolph shows Mimi the pink bonnet he has cherished all the time. Musette and Marcel soon return with medicines and a muff, upon which Mimi sinks into the sleep that knows no awakening, with a contented smile.