If you've a relatively low tolerance for chocolate-box schmaltz but equally aren't a fan of gritty updatings then you've struck lucky with WNO's new La Boheme - the sincerity and simplicity of Annabel Arden's new production strikes an ideal balance between the two extremes. Charm never tips over into kitsch: the garrets of Acts One and Four are neither squalid nor overly picturesque, and Stephen Brimson Lewis's filmic backdrop gives us a beautiful-but-bleak panorama of the Parisian rooftops; the sleazy undercurrents at Momus are hinted at rather than spelled out, and it's only in the freezing dawn of the third act that the harsh realities of being down and out in this Paris are made explicit. The production also oozes ensemble and camaraderie: particularly in the rumbustious garret and cafe-scenes, the cast seemed to be having a ball, if certain elements still seemed just a little undercooked at this relatively early stage in the run (some ragged ensemble in the Cafe Momus scene and, most notably, a calamitous off-stage crash just as Rodolfo and Mimi headed off on their ecstatic first date at the very end of Act One).
Anita Hartig was a new name to me, but WNO have hit upon the perfect fragile seamstress with this Romanian soprano (as the A-list houses have evidently noted - she's due to repeat the role at Covent Garden next season). Entirely free from arch coquettishness, her Mimi is unfailingly natural and sympathetic; the voice is a beautifully even lyric with no pressure or spreading in any register but plenty of bloom and body for the despairing outbursts of Act Three. Alex Vicens's physically and vocally diminutive Rodolfo made less of an impact, though his narrow, bel canto-ish tenor opened out excitingly in the soaring, high-lying phrases of 'Che gelida manina' and the love-duet: at this stage in the run he didn't seem quite comfortable enough to let the phrases breathe (especially noticeable in parlando sections such as those at the beginning of his first aria) and there was quite a lot of nervy clocking-in with Rizzi, whose approach seemed to be rather more spacious than his singer would have liked in places.
David Kempster's Marcello looked and sounded significantly older and greyer than his young flatmates, but his Trevor Eve-ish glamour and convincingly sizzling chemistry with Musetta carried all before it and his clumsy gentleness with Mimi in their great Act Three heart-to-heart was the emotional crux of the evening. As his feisty on-off lover, Kate Valentine's attractively tart, borderline spinto sound was the perfect tonal foil for Hartig's limpid Mimi, lasering out splendidly brash top Bs at the end of the waltz and never slipping into tired tart-with-a-tart cliche: like pretty much everyone else involved, the sincerity was palpable. (The current trend in the studio and on stage seems to be towards more soubrettish Musettas and slightly heavier Mimis, so the casting here was a refreshing change which worked beautifully in the Act Three quartet in particular).
The 'men behaving badly' scenes in the garret (which can so often seem stilted and slightly cringeworthy) were a joy: spontaneous, funny and busting with joie de vivre, and making Mimi's final tragic interruption all the more poignant. David Soar's deadpan Colline and Gary Griffiths's gloriously ostentatious Schaunard all but stole the show, if at times these two lusty lower voices threatened to overwhelm Kempster's slightly dry-sounding Marcello and Vicers's slimline Rodolfo. (Griffiths has just been announced as the Welsh competitor for Cardiff Singer of the World 2013 and on this showing he is already a consummate stage-animal who has the full measure of his sturdy, lustrous baritone: definitely one to watch, and surely a fabulous future Marcello). Of the smaller roles, Howard Kirk's Rigsby-like Benoit was suitably sleazy and Michael Clifton-Thompson's Parpignol unusually sinister (shades of The League of Gentlemen's Papa Lazarou here!); if Martin Lloyd's elegant, patrician Alcindoro rather melted into the background, his very unobtrusiveness made the character all the more sympathetic.
Catch it this time round if you can, but there's already another block of performances scheduled for the autumn: this is surely a classic Boheme that'll run and run.