La bohème always pulls in the punters, of course, and this revival by Opera North of this ever-popular opera about young love and tragedy, driven by Puccini’s intensely lyrical music, is packing them in once more. It still sparkles, it really does. Michael Barker-Craven again directs Phyllida Lloyd’s radical 1993 creation, and the setting is still Paris in the 1950s, just as mythical as Paris in the mid-19th century when the novelist Henri Murger romanticised bohemian life, the Latin Quarter and exploited, poverty-stricken seamstresses. Mimì, one of them, is costumed in simple, existentialist black, perhaps a follower of Simone de Beauvoir. Musetta flirts in a red dress, and there are some fitting American references: Marcello produces multiple prints of his beloved in the style of Andy Warhol, and owns a motorcycle, bringing young Marlon Brando in the 1953 film The Wild One to mind. The famous black and white photograph of two lovers kissing by Robert Doisneau, taken through a café window, is adapted, colourised and expanded as one of the backgrounds. It all works well.

Eleazar Rodriguez (Rodolfo) and Lauren Fagan (Mimì) © Richard Hubert Smith
Eleazar Rodriguez (Rodolfo) and Lauren Fagan (Mimì)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Lauren Fagan's Mimì’s was beautifully sweet, delicate and restrained, but unleashed torrents of powerful emotion, a fact evident from the moment she joined her new lover Rodolfo for “O soave fanciulla”. She was thrilling. Although a little restrained in Act 3, when searching for Rodolfo outside a seedy nightclub after a quarrel, she was excitingly poignant as the dying victim in Act 4, in “Sono andati”, her duet with him. Eleazar Rodriguez was a volcano of emotion, erupting into full flow at the end of the first act, occasionally at the expense of his intonation, but hitting all high notes precisely.

Anush Hovhannisyan (Musetta) with the cast of <i>La bohème</i> © Richard Hubert Smith
Anush Hovhannisyan (Musetta) with the cast of La bohème
© Richard Hubert Smith

Armenian soprano Anush Hovhannisyan, who represented her country two years ago at the Cardiff Singer of the World competition, revealed considerable acting talent, especially when she was manipulating the feelings of both Marcello and her rich, elderly suitor Alcindoro in the Café Momus. Her “Quando m’en vo” was particularly impressive, sung along with charmingly coquettish body language. Ukrainian baritone Yuri Yurchuk was superb as Marcello, his acting convincing, his rich voice sometimes strident, sometimes seductively mellow.

Act 2 in the Café Momus provided opportunities for Opera North’s well-drilled children’s chorus to dominate the closely-choreographed proceedings at times, with festive processions and carnivalesque behaviour, appearing at one point dressed in Father Christmas coats. The stage was in constant motion, the emphasis on exuberance and fun, continuing the fooling-about which takes place in the freezing attic at the beginning and end of the opera. Thuggish sailors posed amongst the customers throughout, a reminder of contrasting themes of violence and tragedy, but La bohème is not really in the verismo mould. The romantic comedy and slapstick elements see to that, and it is studded with interesting individuals and moments in its episodic structure, for example Benoît, the attic’s money-demanding landlord, a terrific comic performance from Jeremy Peaker and Colline, played by Emyr Wyn Jones. His farewell to the old coat he intends to pawn, “Vecchia zimarra senti” would have produced much applause if performed on a concert platform as a separate piece, though here it was overshadowed by the main action.

Yuriy Yurchuk (Marcello), Eleazar Rodriguez, Henry Neill (Schaunard), Emyr Wyn Jones (Colline) © Richard Hubert Smith
Yuriy Yurchuk (Marcello), Eleazar Rodriguez, Henry Neill (Schaunard), Emyr Wyn Jones (Colline)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Renato Balsadonna conducted the Orchestra of Opera North to bring out all the colour and emotion of Puccini’s music, from arctic quiet to frenetic energy to pathetic intensity. He controlled the flowing mercury with efficiency, with some well-timed sudden jolts when required. This revival has not been allowed to go stale and, like the opera itself, is capable of being constantly refreshed. I predict that it will make another appearance at the Leeds Grand Theatre in a few years time.

****1