The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






La Bohème

La Bohème is an often-adapted story first appearing in Henry Murger 's magazine articles in the early 1800s. These were turned into a play, La Vie de Bohème, in 1849, and later were compiled into the book Scenes de la Vie de Bohème (Paris, 1851). It has also been made into several operatic versions, the most famous of them by Giacomo Puccini.

The story includes a group of friends in the Bohemian artistic subculture of France; the group is poor, and some of its female members work as courtesans. This creates complicated situations when one of these characters, suffering from tuberculosis, must balance survival against romantic love.

In the late 20th century, the musical Rent was based on La Bohème, with AIDS substituted for tuberculosis. A movie, Moulin Rouge!, was also loosely based on this plot; it was directed by Baz Luhrmann, who had previously directed a wildly successful Australian production of Puccini's opera version which opened on Broadway in 2002.


Versions of the La Bohème/dying courtesan theme

Puccini operatic version

Perhaps the most famous version of La Bohème is the opera by Giacomo Puccini. The story was taken from scenes of Henry Murger's La Vie de Bohème. Libretto by Giacosa and Illica. First production, Turin, February 1, 1896.


Place, Paris.
Time, about 1830.

Act I. In the four bohemians' garret. Marcello is painting while Rodolfo gazes out of the window. As they have no fire, they use the manuscript of Rodolfo's drama for fuel. Colline, the philosopher, enters shivering and disgruntled at not having been able to pawn some books. Schaunard, the musician of the group, arrives with food, wood, wine, and money, and he explains the source of his riches -- a job with an English gentleman. Nobody listens, but they fall ravenously upon the food, which is removed by Schaunard, leaving only the wine. While they drink, Benoit, the landlord, arrives to collect the rent. They flatter him and give him wine. In his drunkenness, he recites his amorous adventures, but when he also declares he is married, they thrust him from the room in comic moral indignation. The rent money is divided for a carousal in the Quartier Latin. The other Bohemians go out, but Rodolfo remains alone in order to work. Some one knocks, and Mimi, whose candle has been snuffed out, asks Rodolfo to light it. She departs, but returns in a few minutes, saying she has forgotten her key. Both candles are extinguished; they stumble in the dark, and Rodolfo finds the key, which he pockets. They relate the story of their varied experiences in the two arias. ("Che gelida manina -- Your tiny hand is frozen"; and "Mi chiamano Mimi -- They call me Mimi.") The waiting friends call Rodolfo impatiently. He wishes to remain at home with Mimi, but she decides to accompany him. Departing they sing of their love. (Duet, Rodolfo and Mimi: "Oh soave fanciulla -- Oh gentle maiden")

Act II. Quartier Latin. A great crowd on the street, sellers praise their wares. (Chorus: "Arrangi, datteri, caldi i marroni -- Oranges, dates, hot chestnuts."). The friends repair to Café Momus. While they eat, Musetta, formerly beloved of Marcello, arrives with her rich admirer Alcindoro. She tries to attract Marcello's attention (Song, Musetta: "Quando m'en vo -- When I go along"), and succeeds after many efforts. She feigns to be suffering from a tight shoe, and to get rid of him, sends Alcindoro to the shoemaker. During the ensemble, Musetta and Marcello fall into each other's arms. The friends wish to pay the bill, but to their consternation find Schaunard's riches gone. Musetta has the entire bill charged to Alcindoro. The police appear, and they rush in all directions. Marcello and Colline carry Musetta out on their arms amid the applause of the spectators. When all have gone, Alcindoro arrives with the shoe seeking Musetta. The waiter hands him the bill, and horror-stricken at the amount he sinks upon a chair.

Act III. At the toll gate. Clothing peddlers come to the city. Mimi, coughing violently, wishes to speak to Marcello, who resides in a little tavern near the barrier where he paints signs for the innkeeper. She tells him of her hard life with Rodolfo, who has abandoned her that night. (Mimi: "O, buon Marcello aiuto! -- Oh, good Marcello, help!") Marcello tells her that Rodolfo is sleeping at the inn. He has just awakened and is seeking Marcello. Mimi conceals herself. Rodolfo first claims he left Mimi out of jealousy, but finally lets on that he fears she is consumed with a deadly illness and should be comforted by a wealthier suitor. Marcello, out of charity for Mimi, endeavours to silence him, but she has already heard all. She is discovered by her coughing. Marcello joins Musette, Rodolfo and Mimi are about to separate (Mimi: "Donde lieta usci -- From here she happily left"), but are finally reconciled. Musetta approaches with Marcello, who is jealous. They depart after a fierce quarrel. (Quartet: Mimi, Rodolfo, Musetta, Marcello: "Che facevi -- What were you doing?")

Act IV. Back in the garret. Marcello and Rodolfo are seemingly at work, though they are primarily bemoaing the loss of their respective beloveds. Schaunard and Colline arrive with the dinner. They parody a plentiful banquet, dance and sing. (Quartet: "Eccoci-- Here we are!") Musetta and the suffering Mimi appear; all assist the dying girl. Musetta and Marcello depart to sell Musetta's earrings to get money for medicine. Colline and Schaunard leave to pawn Colline's coat (Colline: "Vecchia zimarra, senti -- Old coat, listen.") Mimi and Rodolfo, left alone, recall their past happiness. (Duet, Mimi and Rodolfo: "Sono andati? -- Are they gone?") The others return, and while Musetta prays aloud, Mimi dies. (Prayer, Musetta: "Madonna benedetta -- Blessed Mother")

Leoncavallo operatic version

A lyric opera in four acts was written by Ruggiero Leoncavallo. Libretto by the composer. German by Ludwig Hartmann. First production, Milan, 1897.


Place, Paris.
Time, one year from Christmas, 1837 to Christmas, 1838.

Act 1. At the Café Momus. The innkeeper Gaudenzio tries in vain to eject the Bohemians, who never pay, and are always in mischief. During the conversation another piece of horseplay on their part is discovered. They sit down to dine, while Musetta gaily sings. (Canzonette: "Mimi is the name of my sweet blonde.") Naturally when they are asked to pay the score, they have no money. A comic fight ensues between them and the innkeeper, who has called his servants to assist him. It is ended by Barbemache, who offers to pay the bill.

Act II. In the court of Musetta's house. Musetta's lover has left her and refuses to pay her debts any longer. In consequence, her furniture is levied upon and carried down to the courtyard. When this has been done, she returns home; she expects guests and cannot entertain them in any other way than by receiving them in the courtyard. Here the Bohemians, who arrive in large numbers, celebrate joyously. In vain the neighbours awakened from sleep protest, and the scene ends in a general fight between the two factions.

Act III. Garret room of Marcello. Musetta, who can no longer bear the sufferings of hunger and want, desires to leave him. Mimi, during the festival in the courtyard, has allowed herself to be carried off by Count Paul, but actuated by love for Rodolfo, returns. Musetta begs her to go with her, but in vain. Marcello and Rodolfo in anger compel both to leave the apartment.

Act IV. Garret room of Rodolfo. Mimi returns to Rodolfo in a dying condition. Musetta, who accidentally meets her there, sacrifices her jewels to procure fuel to warm the room for Mimi. As the Christmas chimes are heard, Mimi expires.

References and external links:

  • Opera plots taken from The Opera Goer's Complete Guide by Leo Melitz, 1921 version.
  • Recordings of Puccini's La Boheme

Last updated: 05-03-2005 17:50:55