Christmas Eve. Paris. Rodolfo, a poet, and Marcello, a painter, complain about their bitterly cold garret. To keep warm they decide to burn Rodolfo’s latest script. While enjoying the brief warmth, they are joined by their friends Colline, a philosopher, and Schaunard, a musician, who brings food, wine, fuel and money. He tells them about the eccentric Englishman who has just hired him, however, they take no notice, concentrating instead on the goods he’s brought. Schaunard suggests they celebrate Christmas by going to the popular Café Momus. While they are enjoying themselves, Benoit, their landlord, arrives to collect the rent. He is invited inside where the friends ply him with drink, encouraging him to share his salacious exploits. The friends throw him out in mock indignation and successfully avoid paying the rent. As they are leaving for the Café Momus, Rodolfo decides to stay behind and finish an article he’s writing, promising to meet them later. He is interrupted by Mimì, a neighbour, whose candle has gone out. He invites her in and she faints. When she revives, Rodolfo relights her candle and she leaves. Mimì realizes she has lost her key and, for a second time, her light goes out; Rodolfo’s candle has also gone out, leaving them both in darkness. During the search for her key, he feels how cold her hand is and offers to warm it in his. He tells her about his life and shares his dreams with her. In turn she tells him of her solitary existence as a seamstress and how she waits for spring and the scent of real flowers, as the ones she sews have none of their own. They declare their love for each other and leave for the Café Momus.
The Christmas Eve streets are full of revellers, shoppers, vendors and children. On the way to Momus Rodolfo buys Mimì a hat before nervously introducing her to his friends. They all sit together and order dinner, full of banter and good humour. Children rush towards Parpignol, a street trader, as he touts his wares. Musetta, Marcello’s ex-lover, makes a grand entrance, followed by her wealthy benefactor Alcindoro. Musetta and Marcello see each other but he tries to ignore her. She regains his attention by singing about her own beauty and allure. The friends at the table remark upon the depth of feeling that obviously still exists between the couple. Complaining violently that her shoes hurt, she sends the long suffering Alcindoro away to buy her a new pair. Musetta and Marcello are reconciled and fall into each other’s arms. The friends escape the café by joining a street parade, leaving Alcindoro to pay their bill.
A couple of months later, Mimì comes in search of Marcello, who has now moved and is living with Musetta. Mimì is overcome with coughing when Marcello arrives. He asks her inside to join Musetta and Rodolfo, who spent the night there. Mimì pours out her heart to Marcello, telling him how Rodolfo walked out on her last night and how he is making their life miserable through his incessant jealousy. She asks Marcello to help them separate. She hides when Rodolfo comes out to tell Marcello that he wants to leave Mimì, initially giving the reason that it is because she is a flirt. Marcello digs deeper and Rodolfo confesses that the real reason he wants to leave is that Mimì is dying. He is consumed with guilt as he thinks he may have brought on her condition through his poverty and inability to provide for her. Rodolfo hears her cry out and rushes to where she has been hiding. They reluctantly say goodbye. Marcello returns inside as he hears a commotion caused by Musetta. She flies out in a rage, followed by Marcello shouting insults at her. Mimì and Rodolfo reaffirm their love for each other and decide to wait until spring arrives to separate.
Marcello is back living with Rodolfo. The two friends try to work but are distracted and depressed by the absence of their ex-lovers. Their malaise is broken by the arrival of Schaunard and Colline bearing very meagre supplies for dinner. They make the best of a bad situation and create their own entertainment for the evening. As their fun is getting out of hand, Musetta bursts in. Mimì is with her and is close to death. Rodolfo helps her in and settles her on the bed. Musetta tells the friends how Mimì had left her rich lover and wanted to be brought back to the garrett to die. Musetta and Marcello leave in order to sell Musetta’s earrings to buy medicine. Colline leaves to pawn his precious overcoat; Schaunard also gives the couple some space to be alone. Mimì and Rodolfo reaffirm their love for each other and reminisce about the time when they were first together and the hat he bought for her on Christmas Eve. Their friends return; Musetta gives Mimì something to keep her hands warm and prays for her. Mimì dies peacefully. Grief-stricken, Rodolfo cries out her name.
Words by Lee Blakeley