Opera North transplant Puccini’s immortalised work La Boheme to post-war Paris for this innovative and stylish production. Impoverished painter Marcello (Marcin Bronikowski), philosopher Colline (Tim Mirfin) and poet Rodolfo (Aldo Di Toto) strive in vain to stave off the bone-splintering cold of the Parisian winter by loping about their squalid dwellings grumpily, singing on occasion and condemning every new artistic creation to the stove in hope of keeping the fire going.
But while Peter Relton’s revival might suggest a typical evocation of La Ville d’Amourmythology for the era - one where you’d half-expect seducing music to stream from the doorways of sultry bohemian dives and ranting Sartre-likes to play endless hands of vingt- et-un with half-soused Simone De Beauvoirs - Slum-chic romanticism this is not., due in no small part to Anthony Ward’s striking set design; which is as clever as it is grim.
There’s a peculiar charm, possibly, in keeping a motorbike in your living room and your easel in your bedroom, and for those two rooms to be as one. But the unrelenting dankness of the concrete bunker these boys call home is rendered so utterly palpable, you almost feel the need to check your hair and shirt for creepy-crawlies when you get up for the interval.
And you certainly don’t blame any of the characters when they slope off for a night out at the end of the first act, once they’ve duped the landlord out of the rent arrears. So cue the girl next door (well, from upstairs at least). Rudolpho and Mimi meet over an unlit candle and soon find one another irresistible -although whether such swift escalation to physical intimacy stems from a basic need to warm up is something the librettists never really dwelled upon.
Regardless, Sarah Fox as Mimi gives a sensational performance. Her singing is never anything short of joyous throughout. In fact, she moves about the stage as such a bright, shiny button of kookyness that when Rudolpho craftily pockets her door-key after the candle snuffs, you almost expect the soprano to emit he own luminescence.
The action, in the main, clips along at a fair pace; the crowd scenes in particular stand out for their frenetic choreography and assured performances from an array of young talent. As does the interplay between the central characters: mixing in equal measure slapstick pratfalls with those universally known, spine-tingling arias.
Any niggles, then? Well, the male vocalists occasionally get lost amongst an overwhelming potent orchestra – Di Toro especially. But in truth this really only serves to demonstrate the astonishing singing aplomb of Fox and Jeni Bern’s Musetta; the moments when their voices attain such power and height you can sense them climbing out over the wall of thrumming brass and strings and taking flying leaps into the theatre are quite simply breathtaking.
And one or two grumbles in the direction of Bern insinuated her Musetta doesn’t quite strike the right notes of either comeliness or vulpine verve. But such things are footling; for all of the poverty and needfulness of Puccini’s characters in La Boheme, this heart-filled, saddening but - at times - achingly beautiful Opera North presentation of their story is absolutely packed full with riches.
Opera North performed La Boheme at Nottingham's Theatre Royal on Tuesday 29 June and Thursday 1 July 2010.