If you’re meaning to rivet a modern audience to an age-old story, it seems fair to ‘fiddle’ with an opera’s staging. La bohème, the tragic story of love and loss that was first performed in 1893 in Turin, has become one of the most widely performed works in the whole opera repertoire. In the name of keeping audiences jollied and intrigued, then, its interest in an update is certainly legitimate.

Nevertheless, the first two scenes (of four) in Ole Anders Tandberg's production were full of surprises and humour. They thrived on references to French icons, embracing everything from Santa Claus to Left Bank buffoonery. Rodin’s The Thinker animates one scene, Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps on horseback was the final backdrop to the chaos of another. Among the crowd scenes there, for example, a circus figure gallivanting in satin pantaloons comes straight out of a Toulouse-Lautrec, as do 18 youngsters in bowler hats and moustaches.

Puccini’s Italian libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa was based on a collection of vignettes portraying young bohemians living in the Latin Quarter of Paris in the 1840s. Yet here in Zurich, that plan was history. Heavy mouldings that marry the outside walls to the ceiling and plain loveless clapboarding and windows of the set, in Erlend Birkeland's designs, fit a rigid, fairly conventional model. The generous space of the cold room in a dated building more clearly resembled an old movie theatre than a garret in a cheap boarding house. In fact, the mix of historical periods and designer citations had the audience in a steady state of disarray, floundering to find its ground. Act II is something of an assault on the senses anyway, but here we had to plough through citations as diverse as the mid-century clowns’ trousers to designer Chanel suits of a century later.

Acts III and IV are relatively forlorn and traditional by comparison, the silliness of paper hats and Dada costumes offered as quirky relief. Perhaps the ‘meat’ of the opera could truly come to light only against that sombre background: the emotive powers of love and jealousy, the test of true friendship, and the misery of a doomed fate over both. 

No wagon (the staging) should come before the horse (the voices), however. While the Guanqun Yu's doomed Mimì sang beautifully in the upper range, her transitions between high and middle voice could be uneven, and she sometimes swallowed her final lower notes. Michael Fabiano electrified the stage as her Rodolfo with a dynamic vocal rendering but his affection for his Mimì often verged on the saccharin. Shelley Jackson's conniving Musetta was entirely lovable for her distinctive ‘chutzpah’ and her convincing acting skills – as seductress, wily operator, and finally, compassionate friend to the consumptive Mimì. Andrei Bondarenko's Marcello was the finest voice: rounded, mellow, consistently clear. Sadly, his expressionless acting did him few favours: without animation, one was hard-put to understand Musetta’s unconditional attraction.

Conductor Giampaolo Bisanti is new to Zurich but kept the fine Philharmonia on a tight and compelling course. Ernst Raffelsberger managed a cast of some 100 singers and extras with aplomb, despite their ungainly costumes and the handicaps such contraptions might have set in their way. In supporting roles, Musetta’s adoring suitor, Alcindoro, Valeriy Murga sang and acted commendably as the duped cuckold who ends up paying for the entire crowd’s restaurant bill. Adrian Timpau sang Schaunard, one of the good-willed companions to the two male principals; Erik Anstine gave an endearing and entirely relaxed performance as the second clochard, Colline. In an act of selfless charity, he would sell his winter coat to afford medicine for the ailing Mimì, and sang to the inanimate garment in “Vecchia zimarra” as if to a deserving old friend. An aria to a shabby overcoat? It could only happen in opera!

What’s more, in ‘Mi chiamano Mimì’ the young woman confesses “I am only your neighbour who comes out to bother you” in a way that is as enticing as it is innocent. Her Rodolfo enthuses “Ah! Mimi! My short-lived youth!” with a melodic passion that is equally infectious. And the snarling and erotically charged musical exchanges between Musetta and Marcello on one part of the stage − in contrast to Mimì and Rodolfo’s confession of dear love on another − is sheer musical and theatrical genius. Had there been more such moments and fewer gimmicks, I’d have liked this production more.