A shared flat in Paris’s bohemian world of artists and students: The lives of the poet Rodolfo and his friends are filled with talk of freedom, independence, art, as well as financial hardship. When Rodolfo falls in love with his neighbour Mimì, everything seems to have taken a turn for the better, but poverty and Mimì’s illness overshadow the relationship. The young couple become closely attached. Later they separate, only rediscovering their love when it is already too late. At the time of its premiere in 1896, Puccini’s best-known work broke new ground in Italian opera through its prosaic scenery and everyday subject matter. This staging by Christine Mielitz of Puccini’s fourth opera is one of the most popular productions at the Semperoper.
Christmas Eve, in an icy-cold garret looking onto the roofs of the Latin Quarter in Paris, around the turn of the century. Just as Marcel, fingers numb with cold, attempts to finish his painting which seems to remain eternally unfinished, Rodolfo compels himself to write. Both fail. To save the last chair from being broken up and burnt, Rodolfo sacrifices the manuscript of his play, act for act, to the flames. Colline, returning unsuccessful from the closed pawnbroker’s shop, is just able to catch a glimpse of the last warming glow of the stove. Schaunard then appears with his treasures which he was able to get by trickery from a snobbish Englishman due to the murder – announced with much theatricality – of the latter’s parrot. The “sumptuous feast”, full of merriment and high spirits, is interrupted by Benoit, the landlord, who wishes to collect the overdue rent but he can be cunningly sent away owing to his own double standard of morals. They decide to spend the rest of Christmas Eve at Café Momus. It is only Rodolfo who stays behind for the time being in order to write a newspaper article. Then Mimi appears, a neighbour of the Bohemians, and asks for a light for her candle which has gone out. The little seamstress and the poet fall in love in the moonlight of the December evening.
In the bustling, gay throng of the Christmas market in front of Café Momus, Rodolfo introduces Mimi to his circle of Bohemian friends. Marcel’s bitter reasoning about love reaches its climax when the cause of his pain, the coquettishly provocative Musette, appears on the arm of the elderly councillor, Alcindoro. – She wins Marcel back by her own fascination. The cuckolded Alcindoro is left to pay the bill.
Ash Wednesday on the bleak outskirts of Paris. Mimi is desperately looking for Rodolfo and hopes that Marcel will give her information and also advice. However, he only advises her cynically to let the jealous poet go. Believing incorrectly that Mimi has already left, Rodolfo tells his friend that ha has parted with the girl because of her fatal illness. A fit of coughing betrays Mimi. Cornered by the situation, Rodolfo assures her that he will “delay” the parting. Marcel, who had just recommended that love should not be taken so tragically, now himself fails because of the incompatible emotions lingering between himself and Musette: a renewed quarrel, a renewed parting.
Back in the garret, Marcel and Rodolfo attempt to conceal their feelings with work but the slightest occasion leads their thoughts back to Musette and Mimi. Colline and Schaunard appear and wish to celebrate a “princely feast” but they can only afford ... a herring. Musette’s precipitous entrance with the fatally ill Mimi destroys all pseudo feelings for celebration of the four Bohemians. Deeply affected, they are forced to watch as a human life expires before their very eyes. All attempts to alter fate and bride it with jewels, money or an old coat miscarry. Now the friends are presented with the price of a misspent life. One last time, Rodolfo and Mimi recall their first, tender and loving encounter and then the girl dies. Deeply moved, the Bohemians are left behind.