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Libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa
Latin Quarter, Paris, around 1830
In a French Quarter garret on Christmas Eve, Marcello, an artist, and Rodolfo, a poet, burn pages of Rodolfo's latest drama in order to stay warm. Soon they are joined by Colline, a philosopher, and Schaunard, a musician, who surprise them with food and fuel for the fire. Throwing some money on the table earned from his latest job, Schaunard suggests that they pour some wine, and then spend Christmas Eve together at the Cafe Momus. Before they can leave, their landlord, Benoir, knocks at the door, calling to collect their rent. The men invite him in for a drink, and coax him into talking about women. They act shocked at the thought of a married man indulging in such shady exploits, and resolve to throw him out without his money.
As they leave for the cafe, Rodolfo stays behind, promising to join them as soon as he finishes his article. As he writes there is another knock at the door. It is their neighbor, Mimi, whose candle has gone out. He lights her candle with his, and as she leaves, she collapses in a fit of coughing, dropping her key on the floor. While the two search for it, the draft again blows out her candle, and this time Rodolfo's candle as well. Rodolfo finds the key and quietly places it in his pocket. As the two continue to search in the darkness, their hands meet. He tells her of his dreams ("Che gelida manina"), and she tells of her simple life embroidering flowers ("Mi chiamano Mimi"). Immediately taken with one another, they go to the cafe together ("O suave fanciulla").
Rodolfo buys Mimi a bonnet on the way to the cafe. The streets are filled with holiday revelers and vendors, such as the toy seller Parpignol, who is followed by a crowd of children. As they sit down to dinner with their friends, Musetta, Marcello's former girlfriend, appears with the wealthy and older Alcindoro, who is struggling to keep up with her. Although Marcello and Musetta attempt to appear indifferent to one another, it is obvious that they still care for each other. In order to gain his attention and hint at her feelings, Musetta sings a song praising her popularity ("Quando me'n vo"). Complaining that her shoe is hurting her, she sends Alcindoro off to the cobbler's. She then is free to join her old friends, leaving Alcindoro to pay the bill when he returns.
It is February, and Mimi, obviously in poor health, searches for the home of the reunited Musetta and Marcello. Catching Marcello as he leaves a tavern, Mimi tells him of Rodolfo's tireless jealousy, and that she feels they should part ("O buon Marcello, aiuto!"). Rodolfo appears, looking for Marcello, and Mimi hides. Unaware of her presence, Rodolfo tells Marcello that he wishes to leave Mimi because of their frequent quarreling. When Marcello asks for the real reason, he admits that he fears her health will suffer if she is forced to live any longer in the poverty they share. Hearing his concern, Mimi approaches as Marcello returns to the tavern to check on Musetta's laughter. Marcello finds Musetta flirting with a stranger, and the two couples resolve to separate (quartet: "Addio dolce svegliare"). Marcello and Musetta part in anger, while Rodolfo and Mimi choose to stay together until Spring.
Months later, in the garret, Marcello and Rodolfo commiserate about their loneliness ("O Mimi, tu più non torni"). Colline and Schaunard enter, breaking the mood and offering a small meal. The four men forget their worries and frolic about the room, staging a sword fight. However, their laughter is short-lived, as Musetta arrives with the news that Mimi is dying and has asked to see Rodolfo. Mimi is brought upstairs and made comfortable while Marcello and Musetta leave to sell her earrings for medicine, and Colline decides to sell his prized overcoat ("Vecchia zimarra"). Left alone, Rodolfo and Mimi recall their happiness together ("Sono andati?"). Soon the others return, bearing a muff to keep Mimi's hands warm. As Mimi is overtaken with coughing, it is obvious to everyone but Rodolfo that the help has come too late. He is the last to realize that Mimi has quietly died; devastated, Rodolfo calls her name.
Compiled from The Definitive Kobbé's Opera Book and Opera News January 31, 1990.
Giacomo Puccini (Bio)
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