Given opera companies’ practice of reviving productions at fairly long intervals with (often) completely different casts, it is sometimes difficult to predict how a much-loved production will fare next time round. For instance Opera North was canny enough to attempt a revival of its triumphant Gloriana only when many of the original principals (notably Josephine Barstow) were in place.
But La Bohème, directed (as was Gloriana) by Phyllida Lloyd, has always seemed a cast-iron five-star production. Only the most literal-minded would find the updating to the 1950s other than revelatory. Perhaps it should be termed the Phyllida Lloyd-Anthony WardLa Boheme because images stay with you over the years of his ingenious designs: the garret dominated by the motor-bike and the huge stove, the (literally) swinging Cafe Momus scene, with Lloyd’s gloriously flowing movement and the roller-skating toyseller.
January’s revival was good, but didn’t spark in the same way as before. Could it be the fault of the revival director Peter Relton? Certainly Richard Farnes’ conducting was beyond reproach and the pan-European cast was very capable. Maybe it had just served its time.
However, a few cast changes for the Spring season have restored to the production all its amusing, entertaining and powerfully moving impact. The cast, as in January, is filled with Opera North debutants, with Polish baritone Marcin Bronikowski’s authoritative Marcello the only hold-over among the four principals, but now he is matched with another natural stage animal, the Australian Aldo Di Toro. Mischievous and passionate, he fields a ringing Italianate tenor and, like Bronikowski, can switch instantly from subversive clowning to intense emotion. As a result the Rodolfo-Mimi chemistry is much greater than in the January revival, Sarah Fox’s beautifully sung Mimi all the more moving for its lack of show or affectation. Musetta, of course, needs to be showy, in love with the limelight (at least in Act 2), and that was the role in which Fox made much less impact in January. Now, with Jeni Bern relishing her time in the sun, the balance is much better.
I’m not sure that overall this is a better-sung revival than the previous one. The two lesser Bohemians, the returning Frederic Bourreau (Colline) and the engaging Norwegian debutant Thorbjorn Gulbrandsoy (Schaunard), make a good team, but Quirijn de Lang (returning later in the run) brought rather more clout to Schaunard. That is certainly true of the excellent Steven Page in the Benoit/Alcindoro double, but his successor Eric Roberts is a wily judge of comedy, cutting the excessive heart-attack moment at the end of Act 2.
However, this is a La Bohème full of youthful fun and pathos, packed with witty and telling details: you could write the biographies of the chorus characters on the fringes of the action at the Momus and the seedy Act 3 nightclub. Conductor Tobias Ringborg (another debutant) lingers a little in Act 1, but ultimately matches Farnes in the pacing of the difficult mood-shifts and the power and sensitivity of the orchestral playing.