Rodolfo is a poet, sharing a garret in Paris with his Bohemian friends: Marcello, a painter; Schaunard, a musician; and Colline, a philosopher. The men scrape along, picking up odd jobs and joking about their poverty as they pursue their arts. On Christmas Eve, a seamstress named Mimì knocks on the door. Her candle has blown out, and she asks Rodolfo for a light so she can return to her own apartment. At one touch of her cold little hand, Rodolfo falls in love with the fragile Mimì. He introduces himself in the aria “Che gelida manina.” She responds with an aria of her own, “Mi chiamano Mimì,” and their voices blend as they sing of love in the duet “O soave fanciulla.”
Meanwhile, buoyed by an unexpected windfall, Rodolfo’s friends have gathered at the Café Momus to watch the people passing by and to enjoy a good meal. Rodolfo brings Mimì to the party. Marcello’s lover Musetta arrives with her latest protector, the wealthy and much older Alcindoro. As she sings her famous waltz, Musetta torments Marcello and Alcindoro, finally sending the older man away by pretending her foot hurts and demanding a new pair of shoes. While Alcindoro is gone, Musetta falls into Marcello’s arms and charges the Bohemians’ meal to Alcindoro’s account, much to the amusement of the crowd at the café. The friends leave together.
On a cold winter morning some months later, Mimì seeks out Marcello. She wants his advice about Rodolfo, whose unreasonable jealousy is ruining their life together. Marcello tries to comfort her. When Rodolfo arrives, Mimì hides and Marcello questions him about Mimì. Rodolfo begins by accusing Mimì of being a flirt, but then confesses his real reason for trying to drive her off: Mimì’s coughing is growing worse, and Rodolfo has no money to provide medicine for her. Overhearing this, Mimì approaches Rodolfo and bids him goodbye in the aria “Donde lieta.” Grief stricken, the pair cannot bear to part yet and pledge to stay together until the spring.
One afternoon in the springtime, Rodolfo writes and Marcello paints at the garret, but their thoughts keep straying to their former sweethearts. Schaunard and Colline try to cheer the others up with a cheap supper, but the arrival of Musetta with a now drastically ill Mimì sobers all the men. Musetta gives her earrings to Marcello to pay for a doctor, and Colline decides to pawn his coat to help the girl (aria: “Vecchia zimarra”). Rodolfo stays by Mimì’s side, trying to cheer her by recalling their first meeting on the night that her candle blew out. The Bohemians return with their gifts, but it is too late. Mimì rallies for a few moments and then passes away. The distraught Rodolfo is the last to realize that she is dead.