A Parisian market stall with objets d’art from the 1920s connects present with the past. Browsers can touch an artefact which may have belonged to a character from “the Lost Generation”, the collection of writers and artists drawn to the excitement and artistic promise of Paris as it recovered from the Great War. Director Renaud Doucet and designer André Barbe took the largest flea market in Paris, the Marché aux puces de Saint-Ouen as the inspiration for their production of La bohème for Scottish Opera, the curtain rising on modern-day Parisian street scene with a busking singer and accordion player entertaining the moving throng with French chansons. A clearly unwell lady tries out a record on a phonograph: it’s the prelude to La bohème and, as the orchestra seamlessly takes over, we are suddenly in the Roaring Twenties and in the freezing artists’ garret. It’s a nifty bit of time travel in this powerful, vibrant and colourful jazz-age production packed with joie de vivre.

<i>La bohème</i> © Sally Jubb
La bohème
© Sally Jubb

There is the tragedy at the heart of Henri Murger’s romantic tale, but more than other productions, Doucet and Barbe teased out the humanity and humour with witty vignettes, and tight direction. In the pit, the large orchestra was on stupendous form playing their hearts out under Scottish Opera’s musical director Stuart Stratford, from the big moments in this vibrant gorgeous score down to the tiniest of detail in place, like the droplets of water Rodolfo sprinkles to revive Mimì. It really felt like hearing this well-known score anew. Stratford’s tempos were brisk, moving the action along to maintain the momentum but also very supportive of the singers, allowing plenty of creative space and generally achieving a good balance with the voices.

<i>La bohème</i> © Sally Jubb
La bohème
© Sally Jubb

Hye-Youn Lee, her lovely rich timbre cutting across the orchestra, was a terrific Mimì, painfully fragile but with a noble inner strength. Act 3 at the Barrière d’Enfer can sometimes flag, but Lee’s performance as she and Marcello, and then Rodolfo, get to the home truths was as enthralling as it was heartbreaking. Luis Gomes’ lighter tenor as Rodolfo worked well, as romantic as you could wish as he and Mimì search for her key in Act 1, but even in Café Momus the relationship did not look secure, an interesting slant explaining the drift of the lovers later on. David Stout, as an especially pivotal Marcello, was in magnificent voice, and Damian Pass’ Colline and Božidar Smiljanić’s rather serious Schaunard were playful in the garret, larger than life in Momus.

Hye-Youn Lee (Mimì) and Luis Gomes (Rodolfo) © Sally Jubb
Hye-Youn Lee (Mimì) and Luis Gomes (Rodolfo)
© Sally Jubb

Barbe went to town with a clever sepia Parisian picture postcard set, morphing seamlessly from present day street, to garret and then to a fabulously busy Café Momus, with lanterns, light strings and continuous street action from the lively chorus of adults and children. With so much going on, our attention was cleverly led by Guy Simard’s painterly lighting and Doucet’s direction, sometimes freezing one group momentarily to allow us to refocus. The chorus, mostly dressed as characters from the Lost Generation, were superb, the small boys laughing at some rude sketches an artist had dropped by mistake. Jeanine De Bique’s Musetta was an exotic, Josephine Baker-like character, complete with pet cheetah (on wheels), ruling the roost in Momus and completely nailing her famous aria from atop a merry-go-round horse. Old style carnival heads, and a real marching band brought the fun to a head, and the bill to Jonathan Best's shocked Alcindoro.

Jeanine De Bique (Musetta) © Sally Jubb
Jeanine De Bique (Musetta)
© Sally Jubb

Waiting for the spring warmth to return to Paris in the last act, we were serenaded by Djordie Gajic’s accordion full of Puccini flourishes, the orchestra blending in to get the final scene under way. The contrast of the joyful horseplay and wretched Mimi’s arrival was devastating, Colline’s lovely farewell to his overcoat poignant, the music telling us when Mimì falters, and then passes away. To remind us that this is in the imagination of the antique stall browser in the prelude, there are odd flashes forward to the present day: at the start of Act 3, modern security guards clear a rough sleeper off the street, and there is a surprise at the very end of the opera too.

This is a wonderfully humanitarian La bohème balancing sentimentality with bustling Parisians whether the Lost Generation in the 1920s or modern day tourists in the city. There was deservedly not a spare seat to be had at Theatre Royal in Glasgow.