Puccini’s well known little Parisian melodrama moves to 1930s Berlin in this appealing 2011 Opera Australia production that, despite an act full of decadent glamour, remains an imperfectly realised transformation. A fine cast has the dramatic and musical magic necessary to convey La bohème’s timeless beauty and emotion, however, delivering a satisfying performance that borders on sublime when Latvian soprano Maija Kovalevska is in full flight.

La bohème explores the creative but impoverished bohemian lifestyle, in which love and art are not necessarily enough – not just for comfort, but to live. The poet Rodolfo falls for the seamstress Mimì, while his painter friend Marcello has an on-off relationship with the beautiful Musetta, who is tempted away by wealthy suitors. As disagreements mask their mutual devotion, the increasingly ill Mimì must leave penniless Rodolfo, but her fate is already sealed.

Traditionally set in Paris several decades before its 1896 première, Bohème moves forward a century, to the dying days of Germany’s Weimar Republic, for Gale Edwards’ 2011 production (revived by Hugh Halliday). This milieu is ideally suited to Act 2’s gathering at Café Momus, as Brian Thomson’s set and Julie Lynch’s costumes create a decadent visual feast and sense of life on the precipice.

Ladies of the night wearing shimmering black undergarments drape themselves around gilded red-velvet balconies. The chorus form a lively parade, from flower sellers to street urchins. Musetta is spotlit before a vintage microphone, like a sultry cabaret performer of old, in a stunning beaded flapper dress. A few stone-faced Nazis look on. In fact there’s so much to see, heightened by the large cast’s non-stop activity, that this act’s sensory overload lessens the music’s impact.

Conversely, Act 3’s set is sparse and confusing, suggesting the bohemians live in a gloomy government checkpoint. The opera’s bookend set, in which Marcello’s massive mural of the Red Sea’s parting is complete by Act 4, suggests a Spiegeltent. Narratively it’s quite a leap, however, compounding the sense that this Weimar Republic setting is all about making a splash in Act 2. The production’s politicisation of bohemian love, transgression and desperation, in opposition to the increasingly oppressive conservative forces in Germany at the time, would work better with a more consistent commitment to the concept (especially for audience members assuming a Paris setting).

Maija Kovalevska made an impressive Opera Australia debut as Mimì. She sang with power and radiance, but also nuanced expression, underlining the vulnerability she brought to the role as an actress. From their crucial Act 1 first encounter onwards, there was an easy rapport between Kovalevska and her leading man, South Korean tenor Yosep Kang. He conveyed Rodolfo’s deep emotion with conviction and, though strained in the upper register, overall his voice had a pleasingly romantic warmth and suppleness.

Jane Ede’s Musetta was classic fire and ice, and she showed extraordinary poise during her spotlit rendition of “Quando me'n vo” while carrying out considerable stage business. Ede flirted with other cast members while negotiating the revolving stage, yet her soprano was majestic and expressive. The feisty, amorous chemistry between Ede and Christopher Tonkin’s Marcello was convincing. The tall and charismatic baritone is both dramatically and vocally accomplished.

The supporting cast were consistently solid, especially Richard Anderson and Christopher Hillier, rounding out the quartet of bohemian gentlemen as Colline and Shaunard. Anderson’s Act 4 aria, “Vecchia zimarra”, in which Colline decides to pawn his coat for the dying Mimì’s sake, was a performance highlight, his rich bass shot through with measured pathos.

Under the baton of Pietro Rizzo, and filling the pit in its expanded configuration for next week’s Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Orchestra Victoria occasionally overwhelmed the singers. For the most part, however, the sometimes lush, sometimes delicate romance of Puccini’s score was elegantly expressed.