Opera North's production of La Bohème is so exquisite that it is hard to resist. If you are familar with the story of four Bohmeians living in Paris on fresh air, until love makes them change their ways, then you may be thinking - what can this production offer me? After all, if you have seen the late Jonathan Larson's musical Rent - you have seen an updated version full of contemporary references.
The plot may be as familiar as Madama Butterfly but Phyllida LIoyd's production is so full of life and vitality that it feels brand new. Set in the 1960s and following the love lives of painter Marcello (Marcin Bronikowski) and his relationship with Musetta (Jeni Bern), and poet Rodolfo's (Aldo Di Toro) love at first sight encounter with the ill fated Mimi (Sarah Fox), from start to finish La Bohème is a real joy.
Lloyd's direction has pace and nice little touches, such as a Christmas setting, which brings more magic to this poignant tale. The Children's Chorus adds to this festive feeling, in that this time of year suits the tragic elements of the plot perfectly. Rick Fisher's lighting highlights the energy of the Bohemians' existence, but also the poverty. The famous candle scene is lit with fine attention to detail, as it throws the spotlight on the couple as their courting begins.
In terms of set design, Anthony Ward also delivers as it is framed like a picture, but like a painting by a fine artist, you see more detail with each viewing. The only flaw is that this set does seem too cut off from the massive Lyric stage, meaning if you are sat on the sides of the circle, you have to focus on the centre of the stage.
Each performer is exemplary. Di Toro's beautiful vocals are filled with pain and loss and he has a beguiling stage presence. Bronikowski has genuine chemistry with Bern who plays his spoilt lover, Musetta. It is Fox though, who draws you into the tragedy. She underplays the role of Mimi beautifully; from her flirtatious first meeting, to her last breath, this soulful soprano gives a multi-faceted performance, full of hidden depths.
Conductor Tobias Ringborg does Puccini's iconic score justice and the orchestra provide warmth to the cold, stark setting.
Opera North deserve far more plaudits than they receive, as their La Bohème is accessible, moving, funny and during a lacklustre World Cup and impending bad news of financial cuts to arts and education - is music to your ears.