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A gang of four, poet Rodolfo, painter Marcello, philosopher Colline and musician Schaunard whose troubles, concerns, habits, customs and tastes are nearly the same live in an attic of an old house. When the curtain is lifted, an attic filled with frost windows is seen. Painter Marcello is struggling to work on his painting 'Passage through the Red Sea' in shivers, whereas poet Rodolfo is writing his play with frozen fingers. When Marcello attempts to throw the chair as the last wooden ware in the room to the hearth which holds no fire maybe for days, Rodolfo gets in the way stating that it would be better to burn the play act by act.
Orchestra rhythmically and vividly accompanies this two friends' dialogue performed with a gentle recitative technique. Philosopher Colline enters in and sadly announces that the market they shop on credit is closed despite its being New Year's Eve. Their salvation is ushered by the musician Schaunard. He was engaged by an awkward English man to tutor his parrot, got his money in advance with the help of the maid he was flirting with when she assisted him in poisoning the animal. His pocket is full of money, hands with food and wine along with wood. They are going to eat dinner at the attic then celebrate New Year's at Momus Cafe. The landlord Benoit arrives when gang cheerfully sets the table and puts the fire on. He asks for the delayed rental fee. Gang reveals that they see him with a lady and if he keeps asking for the rent they will let his wife be informed thus sends him away with laughters. Now they can leave for Cafe Momus. The friends leave and Rodolfo stays for completing an article for a magazine. Just about to finish it, he hears a knock on the door, he opens it. A young lady stands at the door with her pale and indigent looks. Candle is out, he lights her candle; he is stunned by her beauty. Candle goes out again, she drops the keys. They begin to search the keys in the dark. At the moment Rodolfo touches the lady's hands, he expresses his feelings as: 'How cold this tiny hand is'. Moon lit room seems to enchant both of them. This time Mimi introduces herself with her sad song, tells him of poor and miserable life she leads. Out three friends are heard, they are waiting Rodolfo and shouting 'Momus, Momus' in marching rhythm. Young couple who falls in love at the first sight forgets about time. They start singing a love song with the sweet violin melodies and sounds of harp resembling water drops only to leave out hand in hand.
New Year's Eve at Monmarte, in front of Cafe Momus. The crowd wanders cheerfully. Rodolfo and Mimi, approach to the table where three friend sit; the poet introduces them the lady. Marcello asks Mimi if she has accepted a present from Rodolfo. Mimi proudly shows her bonnet. All talk in rapture, express their regular opinions on love. In the meantime, Marcello's ex girl friend Musetta, appears with a rich man, Alcindoro. Jealous painter calls out the waiter: 'Bring me a bottle of poison!' Musetta sits at the table right next to theirs. It is evident that two lovers are still in love with each other despite their break up. They begin to discuss between tables. Musetta sings her famous and coy waltz among Marcello's mumbling with a flirtatious mood. When the song is over, she throws her shoes off with a squeak, claiming that the shoes pinch her feet. She urges Alcindoro to fetch her a new pair. When poor old man disappears, she runs to the table where the others sit and falls into the arms of her lover Marcello. The entertainment is at the peak. The New Year's Eve parade begins. They decide to attend. Musetta tells that the bill of the two tables will be paid by the old man to arrive in a while, they leave arm in arm to join the parade. Alcindoro returns with a new pair of shoes to be greeted by the bill and he collapses on the chair.
A snow-covered February morning, a small area at Quartier Latin. Paris awakes. Mimi enters exhausted. Musetta's voice is heard from the tavern. Mimi asks the waitress Marcello. Marcello invites Mimi in but she will talk to him alone. The painter decorates the tavern; Musetta gives singing lessons Mimi expresses what has happened recently; Rodolfo is jealous of her and makes her sad. What started as an argument between the two led Rodolfo's departure from home. Marcello tells Mimi that he knows all about these and that Rodolfo is indeed at the tavern to talk to her. Mimi hides. Marcello calls out Rodolfo to give him a piece of advice. But his decision is final, because he does not possess anything, no stuff, no food to give to her. Furthermore, Mimi is sick and he is afraid of her death. Mimi, upon hearing these, begins crying in silence and she is caught in a coughing spell, she reveals herself and approaches to her lover. They are both in despair. Jealous Marcello, hearing his lover Musetta's laughter barges in the tavern. Alone couple's mournful farewell duet begins. Marcello and Musetta appear in the meantime, both couples sing a quartet. Rodolfo and Mimi decide not to break up and wait until the spring. While they walk away in slow steps, voices of fighting Marcello and Musetta along with breaking plates are heard.
again the attic where they stay together. Rodolfo and Marcello broke up with their lovers. They mention about the ladies while working and comfort themselves with their memories. The philosopher and the musician walk in. Colline puts a basket of salty fish on the table, everyone is cheerful now. Bohemian atmosphere is revived. They mock at their poverty. Colline declares that he will be accepted by the king in a while; Schaunard calls them to the salty fish feast. Rodolfo and Marcello dance on the other side. Suddenly the door opens, Musetta comes in with haste. Tells that Mimi is at the stairs and sick to death. Rodolfo runs to the door only to greet Mimi exhausted to the degree of collapse... Musetta leaves with Marcello to sell her earrings and call a doctor. Mimi's hands are frozen, she would feel warm if only she had a pair of muff. Colline gets the situation and takes his old coat to sell it. He sings a farewell song to the coat and leaves with Schaunard. Two lovers are alone now. A sad dialogue begins. The first night when they met, the moonlight, happiness, joy are all a daunting ghost now. Mimi is shaken by a coughing spell. The rest of the gang returns. The doctor is on his way. Marcello has bought a bottle of medicine, Musetta has brought the muff. Everyone is in silence, Musetta prays. Mimi is not moving, Schaunard right next to the bed realized that she does not breathe and whispers Marcello that 'She is dead!'. They bow their heads in hiccups. Rodolfo casts himself on the bed. The theme of love rises through the orchestra.