Opera in four acts.
Libretto by the composer based on incidents in the novel Scènes de la vie de Bohème by Henri Murger, originally produced in serial form between 1847 and 1849.
First performed at La Fenice in Venice on 6 May 1897

Act 1
Christmas Eve 1837 at the Café Momus.
Schaunard is trying to calm down Gaudenzio, the proprietor of the Café Momus, who is furious with the impecunious group of friends who take over his premises and hardly buy a single thing.  Schaunard reassures him that they will all behave more politely because they are having a grand dinner that evening and will pay the bill immediately it is over.  One by one the others arrive – Rodolfo and Marcello, Schaunard’s mistress Eufemia, Colline, and Mimi, Rodolfo’s mistress, who has brought along a friend, Musetta.  Introductions are made all round, and a hilarious party begins.  Despite having no money, they order food and wine and have a wild time ribbing each other about their personal idiosyncracies.  Mimi suggests that they should go on to a dance – but there is the little matter of the bill.  Gaudenzio gets nasty, and a fight is imminent.  A stranger who has been watching the party steps forward and introduces himself as Barbemuche, a literary philosopher and the tutor of a Viscount Paolo.  He offers to pay their bill in return for the entertainment they have given him.  Honour and pride dictate that they must turn his generosity down, but the pragmatic Schaunard proposes a game of billiards, and that the loser should pay the bill.  While that game is on, Marcello and Musetta declare their love to one another.  Schaunard wins the game (or rather Barbemuche deliberately loses), so the bill is paid just as the bells ring for midnight – it is Christmas Day.

Act 2
The following Spring.
Musetta’s wealthy ‘patron’ has become tired of her relationship with Marcello and has refused to give her any more money.  She cannot pay the rent and is losing her apartment and all her possessions.  Marcello offers her a share in his garret and she joyfully accepts.  They decide that a party planned for that evening will still go ahead, but in the courtyard of the apartment block.  Rodolfo arrives with some cash (he has just sold a tragedy he has written) and uses it to buy candles and barley water and to bribe the caretaker, Durand, to let them go ahead with the party.  Their guests arrive, and another wild party gets under way, with Durand enthusiastically dispensing water from the well as if it were vintage champagne.  Mimi arrives with the young Viscount Paolo, who keeps promising her jewels and a life of luxury if she will go away with him.  Mimi is torn, she loves Rodolfo, but longs for a life without poverty.  As the party develops into chaos, the other residents of the apartment block begin to complain, some of them throwing down vegetables and water.  In the ensuing uproar, Mimi leaves with the Viscount.

Act 3
Early autumn.
It is less joyful now: Schaunard has thrown out the flighty Eufemia, and Musetta is quiet and thoughtful.  Marcello has just sold a painting, and he and Musetta discuss Mimi, whom Marcello has seen, finely-dressed and in the Viscount’s coach.  Marcello and Schaunard leave to look for some money and, left alone, Musetta sadly writes a letter to Marcello telling him that despite her love for him, she can no longer put up with the hunger and the poverty.  Before she can leave, Mimi arrives and tells Musetta that despite the money and the luxury of life with the Viscount, she still loves Rodolfo and has come back to beg his forgiveness for her disappearance.  Musetta tries to remind her of the burden of poverty, but Marcello then returns and Mimi hides.  Marcello and Musetta argue, but despite their love, Musetta is resolved to leave him.  He becomes upset and almost violent, and Mimi comes out of her hiding place to prevent Musetta from being hurt.  Convinced that it is Mimi who has persuaded Musetta to leave him, Marcello calls Rodolfo out and tells him that Mimi is trying to destroy his happiness.  Despite Mimi’s protests, Rodolfo declares that he never wants to see her again.  Mimi leaves, and Musetta begs Marcello to let her return to their room just once more in order to gather a few precious possessions (all she takes is a flower that he had given her, now dead and dried up).  As she is leaving, he turns his back on her.  But when she has gone, he collapses in grief.

Act 4
Christmas Eve again, a year after the start of the opera.
Marcello, Rodolfo and Schaunard, alone in the cold attic and without their women, are resigned to spending a miserable Christmas.  Marcello admits that he has written to Musetta, begging her to come back to spend just one more day with him.  But seven days have now passed without a reply.  Then Mimi arrives, ill, and in rags.  The Viscount has thrown her out and she has spent a month in the hospital before being told she was better and asked to leave.  She and Rodolfo admit their love and Rodolfo makes a pathetic fire out of a chair which he breaks up.  Musetta now arrives, and sees Mimi in such a terrible state.  She gives Schaunard her ring and bracelet and sends him off to get some help.  As Mimi sings about how Rodolfo’s love will cure her, Musetta and Marcello console one another.  Mimi faints, then revives and remembers that it is Christmas Eve – the anniversary of the happiness they all had together.  The bells ring for midnight, and Mimi tries to stand, but she collapses, dead.


Related OperaStory articles are on

  • Ruggero Leoncavallo’s life and operas
  • Henri Murger’s life and his writings
  • The row between Leoncavallo and Puccini about who was the first to have the idea of writing an opera on the La Bohème story
  • Other operas based on the same story, including Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème, based on the same characters, but using different incidents from Murger’s novel
  • The background to the writing of Leoncavallo’s La Bohème
  • The characters in La Bohème and their real-life models in Murger’s own life
  • Various things to eat and drink which are mentioned in Leoncavallo’s La Bohème, including a two-headed rabbit and coffee
  • and many other aspects of the opera

 ©  Roger Witts 2006