La bohème continues to exude its particular charm across the world’s opera stages, being among the most-often performed of operas. This is due not only to Puccini’s bewitching music but also the nigh-on perfectly structured and paced four acts with their ideal mix of love, comedy and heartbreak through which to draw audiences in. This didn’t come easily; one of the librettists threatened to resign upon being asked to rewrite one particular scene one hundred times. All of that dedicated craftsmanship showed here, in New Zealand Opera’s new production, where it was hard not to be drawn in by the romance and tragedy as presented by such a sincere, credible and vocally talented young cast and a conductor with such strong identification with the idiom.

Thomas Atkins (Rodolfo) and Marlena Devoe (Mimì) © David Rowland
Thomas Atkins (Rodolfo) and Marlena Devoe (Mimì)
© David Rowland

In Jacqueline Coats’ production, the setting has been updated to something approximating the 1890s, or roughly the period of the opera’s composition, a change that neither particularly enhanced or detracted from the presentation. There were moments with an undeniable and effective dream-like feel, flower petals falling from above or Musetta being granted a spotlight for her Waltz Song. One slanted wall provided the backdrop for all four acts, but it was cleverly manipulated and redesigned to suggest the poverty-stricken garret, a bustling Café Momus and the cold outside of the tavern equally well. Superb lighting also aided in differentiating the scenes clearly.

This was an effective backdrop for an effortlessly directed effort from Coats, with every movement from the tranquil lovers’ scenes to the chaotic bustle of Momus. Only the horseplay of the opening of the final act seemed less natural and more forced; whether intentional or not, this aided the authenticity of the dramatic arc.

Richard Greager (Alcindoro) and Amelia Berry (Musetta) © David Rowland
Richard Greager (Alcindoro) and Amelia Berry (Musetta)
© David Rowland

What a pleasure to encounter this winning cast, made up predominantly of young New Zealanders who are beginning to make their mark overseas. From the outset, the four bohemians had a strong rapport, playing well off each other in their machinations with landlord Benoît. Thomas Atkins’ tenor was perhaps lighter in tone than his castmates but his performance was none the worse for that, rising as he did to some splendid high notes and coping superbly with the long-breathed phrases in “Che gelida manina”. His acting in the first act was very charming and the initial chemistry that caused he and Marlena Devoe's Mimì to declare their love within minutes was totally convincing. Australian baritone Nicholas Lester was a bluff and warm-hearted Marcello, Julien Van Mellaerts a lively Schaunard with his rich baritone and high-spirited acting and Timothy Newton a solid Colline. My only reservations was that all of the men were sometimes covered by the surging orchestra during more conversational passages.

Marlena Devoe (Mimì) © David Rowland
Marlena Devoe (Mimì)
© David Rowland

This was never a problem for the two sopranos, however, both of whom seem to have the potential to be future potential stars. Devoe’s Mimì was sweet and appealing in character but with a surprisingly large and rich voice that luxuriated in Puccini’s soaring vocal lines. There was an almost-dramatic soprano richness, particularly in the higher register, to the extent that her great third-act plea to Marcello had an extra vivid tragic effect. Some veristic sobs and dives into chest register in this scene made Mimì a more compelling, rounded character than many others do. The many remembrances of phrases past that pervade the final act were taken with a ravishingly soft thread of tone as death approached.

Contrasting with Devoe’s sincerity and sweetness, Amelia Berry turned Act 2 into The Musetta Show in glorious fashion with her brashness and adorable “look-at-me” stage presence. Her voice is equally glamorous, bringing a dash of sparkle to the agile runs in her Waltz Song and with the heft to ride over the ensemble. A more subdued attitude and her evident care for Mimì in the final act rounded out the character.

Nicholas Lester (Marcello) and Thomas Atkins (Rodolfo) © David Rowland
Nicholas Lester (Marcello) and Thomas Atkins (Rodolfo)
© David Rowland

Tobias Ringborg’s superb conducting allowed the orchestra to swoon where necessary but without giving in to undue sentimentality. Overall, the crowd scenes in the central acts and the byplay between the bohemians was handled swiftly and due emphasis given to comic moments. Puccini’s little pictoral touches, such as the pizzicato falling of snow or the crackling of the flames consuming Rodolfo’s play, were consistently brought out to striking effect. Ringborg was more flexible in the showstopping moments for the singers, allowing Devoe in particular to fill out her rapturous lines. The orchestra too was in ecstatic form, ably supporting this highly appealing performance of Puccini’s masterpiece.

****1