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It is Christmas Eve in Paris. Two poverty-stricken young artists, Marcello, a painter, and Rodolfo, a poet, attempt to work in their freezing garret; in desperation, they burn one of Rodolfo’s dramas to keep warm. Their two roommates, Colline, a philosopher, and Schaunard, a musician, return home. Even though Schaunard has brought food, the four bohemians decide to eat their Christmas dinner in the Latin Quarter. Just then, Benoît, their landlord, arrives to demand his overdue rent. The men ply him with drink, and when he boasts of marital indiscretions, they feign moral indignation and throw him out. Marcello, Colline, and Schaunard leave for the Latin Quarter. Rodolfo, always the loner, promises to join them after finishing some work, but a knock on the door interrupts him. Mimì, a young neighbour, enters, in search of a light for her candle. Clearly ill, and breathless from the stairs, she faints and drops her room key. Rodolfo is entranced by her and manages to detain her by concealing the key. Either by accident or design both their candles go out, and as they search in the darkness for the lost key, their hands touch. Both of them solitary, both poetic, they are instantly attracted, and gratefully declare their love before leaving to join Rodolfo’s friends.
A festive crowd celebrates Christmas Eve in the Latin Quarter. At the Café Momus, Rodolfo introduces Mimì to his roommates. Their carefree mood changes when Musetta, Marcello’s former lover, appears with Alcindoro, her aging sugar-daddy. Musetta, still in love with Marcello, attempts to attract his attention. He starts by deliberately ignoring her but cannot resist her obvious play for him. Musetta shrewdly gets rid of the besotted Alcindoro and leaves him to foot the entire bill as she and her bohemian friends escape through the crowd.
Early one snowy February morning, Mimì seeks out Marcello, who is painting a mural at a tavern near the city gates where Musetta now makes an honest living entertaining the travellers. Mimi tells Marcello she and Rodolfo have separated because of his jealousy. As Marcello tries to comfort her, Rodolfo appears, also seeking Marcello’s advice. Mimì conceals herself and overhears their conversation. Rodolfo tells Marcello he is leaving Mimì because of her flirtations with other men. Marcello is skeptical and forces Rodolfo to admit the truth - Mimi is mortally ill and Rodolfo is consumed by feelings of guilt and remorse, knowing as he does that the harsh conditions of their life together have endangered her health. Mimì’s cough gives her away, and Rodolfo realizes she has overheard everything. Overwhelmed by her plight, Rodolfo promises to stay with Mimi until the spring, but Marcello and Musetta argue viciously and separate.
Rodolfo and Marcello, both now separated from Mimì and Musetta, are working in their garret. Schaunard and Colline arrive with supper, and the four fantasize about attending a fancy ball. Suddenly, Musetta enters with Mimì, now close to death and desperate to be with Rodolfo. Marcello and Musetta leave to summon a doctor and to buy Mimì a muff to warm her hands. Colline also departs to sell his beloved overcoat. Left alone for a few moments, Mimì and Rodolfo remember their happier times together. The others return, but before the doctor can arrive, Mimì dies.
Synopsis courtesy of Houston Grand Opera
A scene from the Canadian Opera Company production of La Bohème, 2013. Photo by Michael Cooper.