A garret overlooking the snow-covered roofs of Paris. Marcello is trying to paint The Crossing of the Red Sea and his friend Rodolfo pretends to be working on his tragedy in five acts in verse, though in actuality he is pondering on nothing in particular while staring through the window (“Questo Mar Rosso”). What’s the use of art when your teeth chatter! Unwilling to sacrifice a priceless chair, Rodolfo feeds the fireplace with his manuscript. Their friend Colline, a philosopher, comes back with bad news: the pawnshop wouldn’t take his books... Freezing cold, Colline sits down by the fireside but the poetry burns up fast and affords little heat... All of a sudden the door is thrown open and in come two shop assistants, bringing food, drinks, cigars, and firewood. The fourth friend, the musician Schaunard, has obtained a lucrative commission with an English gentleman: he was supposed to play for his parrot until the beast died. After three days of fruitless effort, Schaunard poisoned the bird and pocketed the fee. Now he’s holding back his voracious friends: on Christmas Eve you drink at home but dinner must be taken in a restaurant! They’re about to leave when a knock on the door can be heard. A fatal visit! It’s Mr Benoit, the landlord, about the overdue rent. The boys treat him to some wine and change the subject through lively conversation (“Dica, quant’ anni ha”), and when the tipsy Benoit begins to talk dirty about his own wife, they pretend to be outraged by his behaviour and throw him out. Marcello, Colline and Schaunard head for the Café Momus, leaving Rodolfo behind, toiling over an article he has to finish. His work is interrupted by another knock on the door, but this time it’s a more pleasant visit. It’s their lovely neighbour, a grisette, whose candle has gone out, and apparently she is also not feeling well. Rodolfo offers her a chair and a glass of wine; once her crisis is over and her candle rekindled, the girl sets to leave, except she seems to have misplaced her room key (“Oh! sventata! Sventata!”). A sudden gust of draught blows both candles out and though Rodolfo presently finds the key in the darkness, he is far from giving it back without getting something in return. Pretending to keep looking for it, he brushes the neighbour’s hand, apparently by accident (“Che gelida manina”), and uses this opportunity to make a formal introduction: He is a poet, a dreamer with the soul of a millionaire. She responds in a similar tone (“Mi chiamano Mimi”): Her name is Mimi, she lives alone in her room, where she makes paper flowers. For the time being, no more information is required, and when the impatient voices of the returning friends are heard from the staircase, Mimi and Rodolfo decide to walk out to greet them together, with one word on their lips: Love!
The Latin Quarter. A Christmas crowd gathers outside the Café Momus (“Aranci, datteri!”). Marcello, Schaunard and Colline take a table on the veranda while Rodolfo buys a lovely bonnet for Mimi and introduces his new acquaintance to his friends: he’s a poet, and she’s pure poetry, so they obviously make a perfect pair. The toy vendor Parpignol comes by, exciting madness in the children and panic in the parents (“Parpignol!”). Mimi and Rodolfo’s idyllic relationship has spoiled Marcello’s mood, still brooding over a certain disrupted affair... By a strange stroke of luck, the fatal heroine of his reminiscences, Mademoiselle Musetta, appears in the café, dragging her elderly suitor, Alcindoro, behind her like a little pet dog. A dog, or perhaps a camel, as the old man is burdened with the gifts he has purchased for her in his enchantment with his goddess. Having spotted Marcello, Musetta picks the next table and, pretending not to notice him, deploys her whole arsenal of provoking poses, singing a sensual waltz (“Quando me’n vo”). Marcello gnashes his teeth in silence while Mimi instantly recognizes that these two are in love. At a loss what else to do to get the attention of the indifferent lover, Musetta pretends that she’s hurting from a tight shoe and sends Alcindoro to get a new pair. As soon as the old bore is gone round the corner, the treacherous siren falls into Marcello’s arms. The whole company use the passing military parade to mingle with the crowd and leave the bill to be paid by the desperate Alcindoro.
In the morning, at the toll gate on the outskirts of Paris known as the Gate of Hell, the city guards let through the morning groups of dustmen, milkmen and villagers on their way to the market. Musetta’s singing can be heard from a cabaret where Marcello is doing a painting job. There is also Mimi, looking for Marcello. The painter is surprised to see her and tells her that Rodolfo is here as well. Hearing his name, Mimi bursts into tears: unable to bear her lover’s brutal jealousy, she ran away from their love nest last night. Startled by the sight of Rodolfo, Mimi hides, and consequently hears him complaining about her infidelity to his friend (“Mimi è una civetta”); when, however, Marcello’s reaction is disbelief, Rodolfo reveals the truth: Mimi’s health is getting worse by day, and he can’t bear the thought of losing her. What’s more, he blames himself for the whole situation as he’s been unable to provide for her properly. Her outburst of sobs and coughing betray Mimi’s presence while Musetta’s joyful laughter heard from the cabaret throws Marcello into a fit of jealousy and makes him dash in to fight for what he deems rightfully his, leaving the star-crossed lovers alone. Mimi has decided to move back into her lonely little room (“D’onde lieta usci”) but Rodolfo persuades her to stay with him till the spring. As Mimi and Rodolfo exchange their words of affection, Musetta and Marcello start a fierce quarrel (quartet: “Dunque è proprio finita”).
Back at the garret from Act I. Marcello has again broken up with Musetta, whom Rodolfo has just seen in the city, riding in a fine carriage. Marcello tells his friend that he has caught a glimpse of Mimi in the street. How are they supposed to work when they are haunted by such memories (“O Mimi, tu più non torni”)?! Schaunard and Colline bring in a royal feast: bread and herring. To cheat their hunger and aching hearts, the boys start a party, dancing and singing – but the painful truth keeps gnawing at their conscience, and then someone knocks on the door. It’s Musetta, who has left Mimi downstairs as the poor thing was unable to climb to the top floor. She found her in the street, exhausted and half conscious. Mimi has abandoned a viscount who supported her and all she wants now is just to die in Rodolfo’s arms. Her hands are so cold that her most immediate desire is to have a muff. Musetta hands her earrings to Marcello to fetch a doctor while Colline has a genius idea: he will pawn his old overcoat to be able to give Mimi the present of her dreams (“Vecchia zimarra”). Mimi and Rodolfo remain alone (“Sono andati?”). They exchange professions and sweet memories of love for the last time. Schaunard comes back at the exact moment when a sudden fit of coughing throws Mimi onto the pillows. Marcello brings the medicine and promises a doctor shortly. Musetta is back as well, with a muff in which Mimi can finally place her freezing hands and fall asleep quietly. Musetta drops to her knees and prays (“Madonna benedetta”). A sudden suspicion compels Schaunard to lean over the sleeping girl and he promptly warns Marcello: It’s all over. Colline comes back with money for Musetta. Only then, after looking into Marcello’s misty eyes, does Rodolfo understand what has just happened. He throws himself onto Mimi’s dead body with a piercing scream.
Piotr Kamiński, Tysiąc i jedna opera, PWM, 2008