Benedict Andrews’ staging of La bohème is seriously flawed, but this revival was a triumph, thanks to picture-perfect, vocally enticing soloists and the copiously talented young conductor Andrea Battistoni. The co-production with English National Opera saw the light of day three years ago at Dutch National Opera. In the English-language version in London, Mimì and Rodolfo fell in love while self-medicating with heroin. Thankfully, the young seamstress and poet went into rehab before returning to Amsterdam, where they lose their hearts traditionally, over snuffed candles and lost keys.

Sergey Romanovsky (Rodolfo) and Eleanora Buratto (Mimì) © Marco Borggreve
Sergey Romanovsky (Rodolfo) and Eleanora Buratto (Mimì)
© Marco Borggreve

Andrews’ artists and grisettes inhabit a vague present, anytime from the 1970s to now. They can’t afford electricity, hence the candles, but have access to an enormous studio with floor-to-ceiling windows. The production’s first major shortcoming is the overdone comedy. Musetta shows her disdain for her patron Alcindoro, who keeps her in furs and sequined dresses, by pinning him to the floor with her stilettos. Philosopher Colline throws up unphilosophically at the prospect of eating herring for dinner. Although everyone acted their socks off, the sight gags fell consistently flat.

The other major problem is that the Christmas Eve revelry in Act 2 lacks a sense of place and occasion. Café Momus is configured from the studio set, which splits and rearranges itself as a series of disjointed panels. This sterile half-inside, half-outside location leaves little room to purposefully direct the colourful throng of vendors, shoppers and passers-by. Things improve considerably in Act 3, where mist and wet snow embody the lovers’ misery as they try to cope with Mimì’s illness. In the final act, the miscalculated comic antics of the men give way to real pathos when the dying Mimì returns to her true love. The studio windows now reveal a playground glowing with the greens and golds of early spring. The desperation of the bohemians as they try to fix the unfixable is individualised and achingly realistic. Schaunard, musician and group clown, standing helplessly next to the swings is almost more heartbreaking than the grief-crazed Rodolfo.

Gianluca Buratto (Colline) and Thomas Oliemans (Schaunard) © Marco Borggreve
Gianluca Buratto (Colline) and Thomas Oliemans (Schaunard)
© Marco Borggreve

Ultimately, the staging’s merits and demerits were rendered unimportant by the sheer gorgeousness of the performances. Tracing graceful curves with his arms, Battistoni shaped the music with utmost tenderness. He also did full justice to Puccini’s musical humour. The Residentie Orkest played for him with breathtaking clarity. La bohème is the ultimate opera about youth – the freshness and wonder of young love, its clashes with the realities of life, and the cruelty of dying young. Battistoni’s agile but spacious conducting celebrated this youthfulness in all its fragile glory. He was also intensely attuned to his singers, whose performances were no less gratifying. The house chorus reaffirmed its excellent reputation as the varied townspeople and the children of the Nieuw Amsterdams Kinderkoor were very well-rehearsed indeed. The ringing toyseller of Morschi Franz and an appropriately gummy Matteo Peirone, doubling as the landlord and Musetta’s sugar daddy, returned from the original production, as did the excellent bass Gianluca Buratto. He and Battistoni turned Colline’s farewell to his pawned overcoat into the gentlest of funeral marches. Three years ago baritone Thomas Oliemans was dramatic dynamite as Schaunard, but had not completely found his feet stylistically. This time around everything fell into place as he fully integrated the Puccinian idiom into his fine characterization.

Eleanora Buratto (Mimì) and Sergey Romanovsky (Rodolfo) © Marco Borggreve
Eleanora Buratto (Mimì) and Sergey Romanovsky (Rodolfo)
© Marco Borggreve

Felicitous casting made for a disarming second couple. Olga Kulchynska sprinkled glamour and histrionics as Musetta. During her waltz she hurled flint-edged top Bs at her painter boyfriend, who is bafflingly admitted into Momus in his pyjamas by the elegant hostess. With his darkly attractive welterweight baritone and Italian diction to die for, Mattia Olivieri made Marcello, an inherently charming character, twice as charming. Those who set store by such things will want to know that Sergey Romanovsky, making his role debut as Rodolfo, chose not to take the optional high C with the soprano at the end of “O soave fanciulla”. Infinitely more importantly, listening to him was like being transported to a bygone age of tenors that prized beauty over heft. His sweet timbre and quick vibrato, reminiscent of Joseph Calleja, and unerring instinct for Italianate musical inflection made him a vocally irresistible Rodolfo.

Eleonora Buratto was a heart-stealing Mimì, releasing her luscious soprano to fill the house and spinning it into fine filaments at will. She was feminine and self-confident and ravishingly poignant as Mimì got sicker. As wonderful as the solo arias were, the singers sounded even better together. Romanovsky and Olivieri sang a richly sensuous “O Mimì, tu più non torni”. Battistoni’s controlled intensity brought the big Momus ensemble to a splendid conclusion. Mimì and Rodolfo’s temporary reconciliation while their friends are breaking up in Act 3 was pure heartache. Puccini fans could have asked for more, but that would have been greedy.