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La bohème - Synopsis

16th June 2022

Nevill Holt Opera

Composed by Giacomo Puccini
Libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, after Henry Murger’s novel Scenes de la vie de Bohème

Act 1 – Christmas Eve, Paris: a top-floor garret 

Two struggling young ‘bohemians’ share a flat. Marcello, a painter, and Rodolfo, a poet, try to stave off the bitter cold – in desperation, they burn the manuscript of Rodolfo’s play. Colline, a philosopher, enters equally disheartened due to his lack of success at the pawnshop, but Schaunard, a musician, arrives bearing better fortune – good food, wine and cigars. While he regales them with the strange tale of their provenance, the others set up to eat, however Schaunard insists that they must save the food – tonight is for revelling at the Cafe Momus, his treat. Benoît, the landlord, arrives demanding the rent, but the four friends ply him with wine. After feigning mock-indignation at Benoît’s boasting of his extra-marital exploits, the quartet eject him from the room – without the payment, which is gleefully divided up for their evening out. As the friends leave, Rodolfo assures them that he will join them soon, but he needs to finish an article. However, a knock interrupts his work. A woman stands in the doorway, another resident of the building – her candle has gone out, and with no matches, she asks Rodolfo to relight it. Breathless, she is helped to a chair and revived with a glass of wine. Once she feels better, she turns to leave but realises that she has lost her key. 

All of a sudden, the draught extinguishes both of their candles. In the darkness, they search for the key, though they both secretly wish to prolong the meeting. Touching hands, he tells her of his life as a poet, then requests the same of her. The woman responds by giving her name as Mimì, though her real name is Lucia, and describes her life as a seamstress. The waiting friends call up to Rodolfo from the street, but he is left breathless at the sight of Mimì in the moonlight. It dawns on both of them that they have fallen in love – Rodolfo suggests staying at home, but she decides to accompany him to the Cafe Momus. 

Act 2 – The Latin Quarter, later on that evening 

The group of friends, including Rodolfo with his new love, all arrive at the Cafe Momus in the heart of the Latin Quarter, bustling with children and street vendors. Rodolfo buys Mimì a bonnet, while Colline buys a coat and Schaunard a horn, before they enter. As the group dines, Musetta, an old flame of Marcello’s, arrives with her rich escort Alcindoro. Upon noticing Marcello, she sings a waltz to grab his attention and infuriate her companion, although Mimì recognises that Musetta still truly loves Marcello. As a ploy to get rid of Alcindoro, Musetta pretends to be in pain from a tight shoe and sends him to the cobblers. Finally Alcindoro leaves, and Musetta and Marcello are able to fall jubilantly back into each other’s arms. The friends are presented with the bill for their meal, but Schaunard’s wallet has disappeared and, after their spending in the square, no one else is able to pay. They are saved from embarrassment by Musetta, however, who charges the lot to Alcindoro before they all leave. Alcindoro promptly returns, but to his dismay is handed the (sizeable) bill. 

Act 3 – Two months later, in the outskirts of Paris 

Mimì appears at a tavern, clearly very unwell. She is looking for Marcello, who now lives there painting signs for a tavern. Their relationship had been blighted by Rodolfo’s terrible jealousy, and he had only recently abandoned her. It turns out that Rodolfo had come directly to the tavern, in search of Marcello. Mimì hides and overhears their conversation – initially Rodolfo expresses his frustration at Mimì’s supposed flirtations, but at length he admits that the real reason for his desertion is out of concern for her developing illness. Rodolfo laments that in his poverty, he can do little to help, and hopes that she will find another man with the financial resources to help her. Mimì presents herself. Marcello hears the sound of Musetta’s laughter and goes to investigate. Mimì tries to effect a separation, but their love for each other is too strong – they therefore agree to remain together until the spring, when the world is coming to life again. In contrast, Marcello finds Musetta, and they argue about her ongoing behaviour. 

Act 4 – Spring 

The two friends have since returned to their garret, and they are distracted from their work by commiserating with each other over their recent breakups. Schaunard and Colline arrive with a meagre meal, and they stage a mock-banquet and duel. Musetta appears bearing urgent news – she has found Mimì, who has now left the Viscount, in the street and frail with advancing illness, begging to be brought to the garret. Mimì is brought into the garrett, saying she feels better. Musetta and Marcello hurry away to sell Musetta’s earrings in order to buy medicine, and Colline leaves to pawn his overcoat, accompanied by Schaunard, so that Mimì and Rodolfo can be alone together. Rodolfo has kept the bonnet that he bought her that night outside the Cafe Momus, and Mimì is delighted. This prompts memories of past bliss, and their first meeting, before Mimì is overwhelmed by illness. The others return bearing a muff to warm her hands, as well as cordial to soothe the cough. Mimì thanks Rodolfo for the muff, as she believes the gift is from him, and falls asleep, assuring him that she feels better. Rodolfo is suddenly confused by the strange behaviour of Marcello and Schaunard, and with one word from Marcello, ‘Courage!’, he knows that Mimì has died. Heartbroken by her death, Rodolfo calls her name in anguish. 

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