Welsh National Opera opened its Love’s Poisoned Chalice season with a revival of their 2012 production of Puccini’s evergreen La bohème. Expectations were high after the praise heaped on Annabel Arden’s production and Caroline Chaney’s revival is every bit as convincing musically and dramatically.

<i>La bohème</i> © Robert Workman
La bohème
© Robert Workman

The production makes few aspirations beyond being an all round crowd-pleaser; the staging is relatively traditional and the cast is solid throughout. The biggest triumph of the setting is the subtle but effective use of projections onto screens and the back wall, giving us starry skies above an evocative skyline and wild flurries of snow elsewhere. Events of the outer acts take place in Rodolfo’s dingy Parisian garret, while the bustle of Act 2 at the Café Momus comes from a convincingly French plaza adjacent to the river, complete with coloured bulbs and fairy lights in the trees. The Barrière d’Enfer of Act 3 is brilliantly lit as a misty and bleak outpost with swirling snow effects. Props are generally sparse but elegantly used, costumes are rich and intricately detailed. The towering mirror panels to the wings occasionally rotated with unnecessary and slightly distracting rapid speed, but otherwise this is a near faultless staging.

Dominick Chenes (Rodolfo) and Marina Costa-Jackson (Mimì) © Robert Workman
Dominick Chenes (Rodolfo) and Marina Costa-Jackson (Mimì)
© Robert Workman

The quartet of leading men sang with admirable technical skill and musicality, but moreover the sense of friendship, and indeed fun, in their interaction was such that one would convincingly want to know them better. Chief amongst the vocal successes was Dominick Chenes’ Rodolfo, whose remarkable stamina, vocal range and dramatic capabilities pulled the show together into a compelling dramatic arc. His fragile relationship with Mimì was complex and yet, by the end, movingly simple. Marina Costa-Jackson's Mimì was sung with a wonderfully full, rich tone despite remaining convincingly ill in demeanour. By the end of Act IV, she was almost translucent in her consumption but demanded one’s attention at the centre of the drama. The reactions of the onlookers to this scene reflected the high quality throughout the casting. In keeping with the production as a whole, Jihoon Kim’s wonderfully gravelly Colline and the lively Schaunard (Gareth Brynmor John) found the perfect balance between comedy and tragedy.

The parallel story of Marcello and Musetta was explored in pleasing detail in their dramatic interactions. Lauren Fagan was a brilliantly wild and flighty Musetta, until the final scene where the Carmen-like mask dropped and the softness of the woman beneath was movingly revealed. Her powerful voice, with remarkable control, even at the peak of her range, mellowed beautifully by the end. Gary Griffiths’ Marcello found his own fine balance between comedy and lovestruck youth before proving himself a man of greater substance in supporting the stricken Rodolfo at Mimì’s death.

Lauren Fagan (Musetta) and Gary Griffiths (Marcello) © Robert Workman
Lauren Fagan (Musetta) and Gary Griffiths (Marcello)
© Robert Workman

The remainder of the cast was similarly strong. Michael Clifton-Thompson’s buffoonish Parpignol brought Act 2 into raucous life with the remarkably talented WNO Children’s Chorus, while the adult chorus handled themselves with all the musical and dramatic excellence expected of them. Acting from the chorus was richly detailed in response to the central drama and yet unobtrusive on the eye.

In the pit, Manlio Benzi conducted his company debut with complete assurance and convincing grasp of the dramatic shape of the opera. His clear direction held together the complexities of the tutti scenes while maintaining a generally quick tempo. Only briefly in the latter parts of Act 3 did the pacing threaten to sag slightly before Mimì and Rodolfo’s touching farewell. Balance between pit and stage was pristine in the fine acoustic of the Wales Millennium centre. Chief among the fine orchestral contributions were the woodwinds, and in particular the flute, whose delicate accompaniments to Mimì’s singing were wonderfully sympathetic. After an inauspicious smudge through the opening notes of the opera, the WNO Orchestra played with admirable clarity and summoned all the requisite emotional power for the key scenes.

While this remains a relatively straightforward reading of the opera, its drama is clear, to the point, and expertly realised, and the music is clearly of very high calibre. It is unashamedly audience-friendly while retaining exceptional musical standards, and bodes well for the remainder of WNO's season.