ACT I—A garret
It is Christmas Eve. As Marcello paints, Rodolfo, unable to write, gazes through the windows at the smoking chimneys of the Parisian rooftops. The bohemians are suffering from the cold. Marcello is about to sacrifice one of the sparse furnishings to the empty stove when Rodolfo has an inspiration: pages of his drama will warm them. Colline returns from a fruitless visit to the pawnbrokers. As the fire dies, Schaunard saves the day by arriving with food, firewood, and pockets full of money. The table is already laid before Schaunard can announce that for Christmas they will dine out. The friends are about to leave when Benoit, the landlord, comes for the rent. The bohemians trick him into talking about his amours; then, feigning moral indignation, they throw him out, unpaid. The friends leave, but Rodolfo stays behind to finish an article he is writing.
Presently, there is a knock on the door. A young woman enters. She asks if she may light her candle and Rodolfo invites her in. As soon as her candle is lighted, she departs only to return moments later in search of her key. Rodolfo secretly finds and pockets the lost key. As they continue to search, their hands touch. He tells her of his life as a penniless poet. She enchants Rodolfo with a description of her modest existence as a seamstress. As she ends her narrative, the voices of Rodolfo’s friends rise from the street, urging him to hurry. Rodolfo goes to the window and tells them to meet later at the Café Momus. He turns to Mimì and declares his love, which she timidly admits is returned.
ACT II—The Latin Quarter
A holiday crowds mills about the small square in the Latin Quarter dominated by the Café Momus. Enjoying the Christmas spirit, the bohemians spend their money: Schaunard buys a horn, Colline an overcoat, and Rodolfo purchases a bonnet for Mimì. They meet at the café and order dinner, after Rodolfo has presented Mimì to his friends.
Musetta and Alcindoro, an elderly admirer whom she orders around like a pet poodle, take the table adjoining the friends. Marcello studiously avoids looking at Musetta, with whom he has recently broken up. Musetta tries to attract his attention by staging a temper tantrum. Raising her voice so that all may hear, Musetta delivers an oration on her beauty and its devastating effects. She decides it is time to rid herself of Alcindoro and feigns a terrible pain in her foot. Musetta sends Alcindoro off for a new pair of shoes. The merry making is dampened by the arrival of the bill. The bohemians search their pockets hopelessly until Musetta takes the bill from the waiter and deposits it together with her own. She announces that Alcindoro will pay both bills on his return. Alcindoro returns with Musetta’s new shoes and is confronted with the bills.
ACT III—A city gate, the Barrière d’Enfer
Amid the snow and mist of a February dawn, the city’s early risers begin their daily routines, while the revelers in a tavern continue the night’s festivities. Mimì asks directions of a sergeant who points out the tavern decorated with Marcello’s paintings. She asks the innkeeper to send Marcello out to her. Tearfully, she appeals to him for help. She refuses to go into the tavern because Rodolfo, who has left her, is inside. Marcello promises to talk to him. Rodolfo attempts to justify his cruelty to Mimì on the grounds of her coquettishness, but Marcello sees through the pretext. Rodolfo admits that the still loves Mimì, but says he cannot endure watching her health fail because of his inability to provide for her. Coughing and violent sobs betray Mimì’s presence. Rodolfo takes her into his arms, while Marcello charges into the tavern to investigate the cause of a burst of Musetta’s brazen laughter. Mimì says goodbye to Rodolfo and tells him they must part without bitterness. They quickly realize that they cannot go through with the separation. Their decision to stay together until spring is made against the background of violent quarreling between Musetta and Marcello.
ACT IV—The garret
Sadly reminiscing about their broken love affairs, Marcello and Rodolfo try to work. Both try unsuccessfully to appear pleased that their former companions are flourishing. Schaunard and Colline arrive with frugal provisions and a more cheerful outlook. They fall upon the food and stage a mock ball which is followed by a simulated duel. At the height of their clowning, Musetta appears. Mimì is waiting on the stairs; she is seriously ill. Rodolfo rushes to Mimì and brings her in. Musetta sends Marcello to pawn a pair of earrings and bring back a doctor. Colline bids a fond farewell to his overcoat which is destined for the same fate as Musetta’s jewels. One by one the friends find discreet reasons to leave. The lovers are alone. Feeble attempts at their former banter are succeeded by reminiscences of their love. Musetta returns with a muff to warm Mimì’s hands. Marcello announces that a doctor is on the way. Mimì falls asleep as Musetta murmurs a prayer. Rodolfo notices that a change has come over his friends, who already know what he only now realizes: Mimì is dead.