Phyllida Lloyd is the innovative director who was responsible for this radical production in 1993, which still has plenty of sparkle in 2014, this time with Michael Barker-Caven as revival director. The timeless story of young love and tragedy works brilliantly in a 1950s Paris setting, and the references to the period are all witty and telling. Marcello begins as an action painter, pouring blood-red paint on to paper in Act I and producing Warhol-style multiple images of Mimì in Act IV, a motorcycle brings a leather-jacketed Marlon Brando to mind, and the set for the strikingly grimy, freezing flat where the bohemians live (designed by Anthony Ward) could have been built for a kitchen sink drama. There is a certain hint of Juliette Gréco in Mimì but her simple costumes are not confined to existentialist black: they reflect a scene's mood, with red for passionate love, of course. There are two casts for this production. I watched the first one in action.

Sébastien Guèze as Rodolfo and Gabriela Iştoc as Mimì © Robert Workman
Sébastien Guèze as Rodolfo and Gabriela Iştoc as Mimì
© Robert Workman

Gabriela Iştoc was a perfect Mimì, true to the character -  pure, natural and soave. She can grip us with subtle restraint, then thrill us when she bursts forth, a fact made evident early in “Si, mi chiamano Mimì”. She could make her lover seem brash in comparison, but Sébastien Guèze, a charismatic bundle of energy as Rodolfo, proved very well that he was one of the warm and caring sort in an immaculately-wrought “Che gelida manina”. When they came together for “O soave fanciulla”, they erupted wonderfully.

Ward's clever and elegant Café Momus in Act II would be pretty swish in today's Paris, with stretched-out seating arrangements and an ability to revolve to suggest the interior and the street. Members of Opera North Chorus, notably the Children's Chorus, were given plenty of opportunities to play customers, staff and the general hurly-burly of street life. They were in constant motion: excited, festive children processed across the stage, happily pestering a traffic cop and putting on hooded Santa Claus coats, the toy seller Parpignol skittered around and a group of macho sailors provided a distant threat of violence. It was all superbly choreographed, especially when the waiters presented Alcindoro, Musetta’s elderly and wealthy admirer, with handfuls of bills, on her instructions. Lorna James' Musetta dominated proceedings well, singing the waltz aria “Quando me'n vo” with great panache, the centre of the comedy as she tries to attract Marcello's attention.

Lorna James as Musetta with the Chorus of Opera North © Robert Workman
Lorna James as Musetta with the Chorus of Opera North
© Robert Workman

The bar in Act III was by contrast a real back-street dive, with the same sailors on the guest list. Rodolfo and his pals were clearly revealed in its warmth through a window which comes and goes while Mimì shivers outside in the dark shadows. I was struck by the high quality of the acting at this point – by Iştoc’s reactions and facial expressions in particular. Marcello (a strong and convincing Philip Rhodes) and Musetta's quarrelling voices were kept well within limits in the quartet “Addio, dolce svegliare” when Mimì and Rodolfo sing about their love pact.

Gavan Ring as Schaunard made for a terrific Marilyn Monroe at the beginning of Act IV, at the centre of all the dancing and fooling about in the cold flat, and the entrance of Mimì, haggard and pale, in the company of a fur-coated Musetta, was most effective. The sudden change of mood was a reminder, perhaps, of how little time has passed, how rapid the deterioration of the heroine. A century ago, when tuberculosis was everywhere, there would have been an extra frisson for the audience, but the tragedy on the stage here was enough. Mimì and Rodolfo’s duet “Sono andati?” was deeply moving and Colline (Jimmy Holliday), Schaunard’s partner, came into his own as well when he mused on the coat he was about to pawn: “Vecchia zimarra” was beautifully done.

Conductor Andreas Delfs made full use of the mercurial qualities of Puccini’s music, and great ensemble work by the company once again made his masterpiece appear to be refreshingly new.