One of the reasons La bohème is one of the most popular operas in the repertoire, some 120 years after it premiered, is that its naturalist narrative is timeless. The story about a group of young, struggling artists and the carefree way they live their lives, the rush of their first love, and their shock and distress as one of their friends dies prematurely, is still very acute. For his first collaboration with the Dutch National Opera, Benedict Andrews emphasizes the modernity of Puccini’s most popular opera. Interviewed for Odeon, the company’s magazine, the Australian director declared: “Even if a play or an opera doesn’t entirely tally with our reality, we still have to realize that what we’re seeing has something to do with our own world”.

The production uses contemporary sets (the four bohemians live in a loft, from the windows of which one makes out a children’s playground) but does not distract the viewer with modernist details; Rodolfo still writes poetry on a manual typewriter. The realism inherent to the piece remains intact and the characters and their story become timeless.

The sets by Johannes Schütz make a strong impression, especially in Act II as they roll out on stage to depict the winding and buzzing streets of the Latin Quarter in a dynamic tableau vivant. At this point in the performance, unfortunately, conductor Renato Palumbo appeared to struggle finding the right balance between the crowd on the stage (the choir of Dutch National Opera, the children’s choir “de Kickers” and the soloists) and the Nederlands Philarmonisch Orkest in the pit. Hopefully, a first night hitch that won’t happen in later performances. Elsewhere, the maestro certainly managed to convey the immediacy of Puccini’s score, although I found his sudden changes of tempo far too distracting at times.

In line with the life-like approach of the production, the cast is composed of a team of young singers who all look their parts. They act convincingly too and there appears to be a real complicity between the four bohemians.

The performance overall is dominated by the excellent Marcello of Massimo Cavalletti and his fiery lover Musetta, sang by Joyce El-Khoury. As the young painter, Mr Cavalletti combines towering stage presence and  great acting skills with a powerful and utterly seductive baritone. Ms El-Khoury’s glamorous looks and assured singing as Musetta enters Café Momus (“Quando men vo”) confirms the Lebanese-Canadian soprano’s reputation as a star in the making.

The Brazilian tenor Atalla Ayan makes a convincing Rodolfo, with an appealing timbre and exciting high notes. Grazia Doronzia is an engaging Mimì. With her slight frame, the Italian soprano certainly looks the part of the frail seamstress, yet her singing certainly does not show any sign of frailty. Her soprano boosts a beautifully round and youthful medium. If I did not find her act I “Sì, mi chiamano Mimì” very moving, it was greatly due the conductor’s disruptive changes of tempo, that seemed to almost bring the aria to a pause in its middle. Luckily, things got better quickly, and she was extremely poignant in Act IV. And, as Mimì drifted quietly to her death, almost unnoticed by the distressed Bohemians surrounding her, the emotion in the audience was palpable.