Puccini's La bohème received its 101st performance at the Deutsche Oper Berlin since 1988 on Friday night, when Yosep Kang and Carmen Giannattasio stormed the stage as the eponymous lovers. The Deutsche Oper production is a classic, originally created by Götz Friedrich. Lavish and beautiful, it is a timeless production and does not make any demands on audience attention. The young bohemians live in a garrett with oversized windows and shabby furniture, then in a basement with exposed pipes and no windows. The café scene is a riot of people, children with toys, soldiers, waiters, gaudily-dressed prostitutes: it is a scene that shows our heroes' love of life and colour. The entire opera seems to be a scene by Toulouse-Lautrec brought to life, and this serves both to orientate the audience in the chosen era and ensure that their focus is not on any directorial message, but on the story unfolding as Puccini intended it.

<i>La bohème</i> © Bettina Stöß (2008)
La bohème
© Bettina Stöß (2008)

And that story is the timeless tale of two young people dealing with an impossible situation. Love in the face of hardship is a common theme in opera, as in most art, but La bohème has the guts to present a group of young people whose very lives are given in the pursuit of bohemian principles. Rodolfo, the penniless writer, seems to live in poverty from choice, whereas Mimì, by contrast, does so because she is unable to rise above her situation unless she takes a rich lover. Their story is mirrored by that of Musetta-who has taken a rich lover-and Marcello, who will never forgive her for it. It is a no-win situation, as they all learn in the end.

La bohème is full of lush melodies, and the cast of the Deutsche Oper production performed them beautifully. Yosep Kang brought a boyish insouciance to Rodolfo: he was cold and hungry but he was enjoying himself despite the hardship. Kang brought out Rodolfo's youthful idealism in his performance of “Che gelida manina”, and kept that idealism alive even throughout the opera's tragedy. As Mimì, his long-suffering lover, Carmen Giannattasio sang with joy and enthusiasm, embodying Mimì's basic goodness.

Their foils, Marcello and Musetta, were excellently played by Davide Luciano and Martina Welschenbach. Marcello has the gravitas that Rodolfo lacks; he sees the truth of the people around him, though he is not always forgiving about it. Luciano sang him with a joyous bonhomie and a real kindness for Mimì, his exasperation at Rodolfo's bad behaviour clear. Welschenbach's Musetta was a treat, a firecracker of a woman whose beautiful voice was never betrayed by her character's emotions. Whether happy, flirtatious, angry or scared, Welschenbach's voice was pure and powerful. This quartet of lovers alone made the opera.

But no group of lovers can perform alone, and they were masterfully rounded out by fellow bohemians Schaunard, sung by the excellent Noel Bouley, and Colline, sung by Marko Mimica at his best. Jörg Schöner's Benoît was a comic treat, as was Peter Maus' much put upon Alcindoro. The chorus and orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, led by Donald Runnicles, was in fine form, fully embodying the joy and sadness of Puccini's music. It was a treat from start to finish.