La bohème is not an easy opera with which to do something fresh, but the latest new productions have certainly had a good go. Claus Guth's conception for Opéra de Paris took us on a hallucinatory trip into space, while Richard Jones at The Royal Opera House blended the traditional with the new. But Graham Vick, in his new production for Bologna's Teatro Comunale, opts in typical fashion to tell the story plainly, directly and with unwavering commitment to the work's emotional core. Combined with what turned out to be a dream second cast and a vivid, truly original interpretation from Michele Mariotti in his first ever Puccini opera, this is a special production that allows you to experience Bohème as if for the first time.

Evgeny Stavinsky (Colline), Andrea Bonsignore (Schaunard), Matteo Lippi and Sergio Vitale (Marcello)
© Rocco Casaluci

Vick opts for modern-day naturalism, with simple and (one presumes) affordable sets populated with contemporary characters – in this case cash-strapped young creatives resembling those from his 2009 production for Athens – with whom it is easy to identify. The update feels believable rather than laboured, and the work's inherent dramatic trajectory, from boundless joie de vivre to ultimate despair, is charted beautifully. Act 1's garret is a grubby students' flat, featuring modern kitchen appliances in place of the stove, and Act 2's Café Momus is a common city high street at Christmas, in which primed waiters swiftly accommodate gleeful throngs of shoppers. In Act 3's Barrière d'Enfer, the kind of shifty corner of town you'd find on the margins of any major city (we see money exchanged for gay sex and drugs dealt to passers-by under the nose of an apathetic policeman), we understand that Mimì is a heroine addict. When she returns to the garret in full swing, death steals in almost unexpectedly to snuff out the illusory happiness of youth.

Alessandra Marianelli (Mimì) and Matteo Lippi (Rodolfo)
© Rocco Casaluci

Vick enjoys working with young singers, and in with the young second cast he is spoiled. Alessandra Marianelli's glowing soprano makes for a delectable Mimì, her transformation in “Che gelida manina” from girl next door to Rodolfo's true love a spine-tingling moment, and Ruth Iniesta's Musetta is uncontrollable, a volcanic hussy who lights up the stage as the bohemians stare on dumbfounded. Bruno Lazzaretti as her lover Alcindoro, an old eccentric in shades, delivers laugh out loud stuff, and Sergio Vitale (Marcello), Andrea Vincenzo Bonsignore (Schaunard) and Evgeny Stavinsky (Schaunard) all make strong impressions. The text is delivered by all with an immediacy that makes each word sparkle. But it is Matteo Lippi who proves the evening's top discovery. With his big, bright voice that streams in a golden mantel of sound, the tenor is clearly one to watch.

Ruth Iniesta (Musetta) and Sergio Vitale (Marcello)
© Rocco Casaluci

Mariotti made his name as an expert in Rossini and early Verdi. Here, he comes across not as a conductor making tentative steps into new repertoire, but one who has been waiting for his chance to reveal a highly personal vision of the work. This is a characteristically restless, searching interpretation that is both flexible and spacious, and Mariotti succeeds in matching broad-brushstroke romanticism with the finer detail of an etching. The tempi are audacious; Act 1 hurtles at breakneck speed, but slows markedly to bask in the sun when the brass sears out of the texture, while the range of colours he draws is impressive, from cleanly conveyed frostiness in Act 3 to an arrestingly muscular Act 4.

Such vivid playing contributes to the overall sense of vitality that gives the finale its devastating impact. Vick employs intelligent stagecraft for Mimì's return so that the shadow of death materialises as the bohemians crowd around her. Stunned when she passes away, they gradually disperse, leaving a terrified Rodolfo alone with Mimì's corpse. If Bohème has lost its ability to make you cry, make sure you catch this one.