The curtain rises to an onstage piano playing Grieg; a slideshow of Edvard Munch’s greatest hits forms the set’s backdrop; the bohemians go to Berns rather than Café Momus; Rodolfo, Marcello, Colline and Musetta become Augusto, Eduardo, Søren, and Tullita (Strindberg, Munch, Kierkegaard, and Larsen, respectively). Nevertheless, José Cura’s so-called “Scandinavian Bohème” for the Royal Swedish Opera remains recognizably Puccini, with the change in locale neither adding nor detracting from the overall experience.

Daniel Johansson (Rodolfo) and Yana Kleyn (Mimì) © Emma Svensson
Daniel Johansson (Rodolfo) and Yana Kleyn (Mimì)
© Emma Svensson
The sets and costumes were all based off Munch paintings, Musetta in particular receiving a stunning series of dresses drawn from his Dance of Life. The sets, all artfully weathered wood floors, birch beams, and Finn Juhl café chairs, are spare and lovely to look at, if more reminiscent of a West Elm showroom than of a dirty garret. Cura’s direction is naturalistic, if conventional – nothing (other than a rather clever incorporation of Julbocken for Parpignol) differentiates this Bohème from any other traditional production.

This is most evident in Cura's handling of his leading couple, which fails to ignite. Saddled with some awkward blocking and then left to their own devices, tenor Jonas Degerfeldt’s Rodolfo and soprano Yana Kleyn’s Mimì don’t quite manage to convince, either dramatically or musically. Degerfeldt’s tenor is pleasant when audible – he often disappeared beneath the orchestra or his partners onstage. The one notable exception to this was a ringing, rather stentorian upper register, amply demonstrated in the big high C in his aria that made him sound rather more like Siegmund than Rodolfo. Rather more audible was Kleyn’s Mimì, including a lovely floating quality that worked wonders in her Act III aria. However, her voice had a tendency to harden whenver above the staff, and her cool, aristocratic stage presence seemed at odds with her character, particularly in the final act.

Sanna Gibbs (Musetta) and Linus Börjesson (Marcello) © Emma Svensson
Sanna Gibbs (Musetta) and Linus Börjesson (Marcello)
© Emma Svensson

The stage was dominated, then, by baritone Linus Börjesson and soprano Sanna Gibbs as Marcello and Musetta. Börjesson’s flexible baritone and charismatic presence made for an unusually complex portrayal, particularly given his excellent use of the text. Though Sanna Gibbs’ lyric coloratura is perhaps a trifle small for the role, she compensated with sheer charisma as well as intelligence, darkening her voice effectively for the final act. The other standout in the cast was John Erik Eleby as Colline, whose rich bass turned his final act aria into one of the most moving moments of the evening.

Musical honours, though, must go to conductor Daniele Callegari, who drew some of the most luxuriant playing I’ve ever heard in the opera house from the Kungliga Hovkapellet. Callegari conducted the opera as a symphonic poem, plucking woodwind runs and brass accents out of the texture while always maintaining a plush wave of sound. Despite this, pacing was tight and he rarely overwhelmed the singers – truly fine operatic conducting that provided all the drama we needed, no matter what was happening on the stage.