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La bohème (Opera North - tour)

Puccini's indelible tear-jerker returns to Leeds & Salford in a revival of Phyllida Lloyd's much-loved staging

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Astonishingly, it's over 20 years since Phyllida Lloyd's landmark production of La bohème first appeared at Opera North. Purists may quibble at some of the details of its 1950s setting – the atmospheric early morning at the city gates, for instance, replaced by a rather prosaic knocking at the door of a night-club – but it has always brought to vivid life a student world we can identify with. Passionate, fast-moving and sometimes very funny, it is a production that emphasises the youth of the protagonists.

Sébastien Guèze as Rodolfo and Gabriela Iştoc as Mimì in La bohème (Opera North)
© Robert Workman

So it's a clever idea on the company's part, in this latest revival, to programme it like a musical (11 performances over two weeks at the Leeds Grand Theatre, then a further five at the Lowry in Salford) – complete with a big glossy programme full of rehearsal photographs – and to double-cast it with youthful talent from all over the world. And to a large extent it works.

Not entirely, though. Phyllida Lloyd's direction has always had a relaxed crispness, a momentum that seems unstudied. Revival director Michael Barker-Caven seems a little too aware that he is looking after a hit show and tries too hard for effect. Thus Rodolfo starts at a frantic pace, over-singing in his desire to prove what a wild young fellow he is. The wittily staged scene at Café Momus suffers under a barrage of lighting changes and Musetta sails closer to parody gold-digger than I would like, though she delivers her waltz song stylishly. As usual, Paul Rendall's roller-skating Parpignol and his army of children (very well drilled, but clearly having fun) pretty much steal the scene in Act Two.

Despite such reservations this revival is consistently enjoyable and thrilled a younger than usual first night audience. As Marcello, New Zealand baritone Phillip Rhodes has a nonchalant authority to go with his rock-solid technique. The French tenor Sébastien Guèze has an eager, puppy-like stage persona as Rodolfo and an intensity and lyricism that serves him well despite signs of pressure.

Dramatically, the Romanian soprano Gabriela Iştoc is a trifle understated as Mimì, but she radiates sincerity and more than confirms the favourable impression she made in From Paris with Love, singing beautifully throughout the range. Lorna James's self-dramatising Musetta calms down to become suitably affecting in Mimì's death scene.

Jimmy Holliday (Colline) and Gavan Ring (Schaunard) complete an energetic bohemian quartet, really coming into their own in the Act 4, first through horseplay (as Cyrano de Bergerac and Marilyn Monroe) then changing emotional gears on Musetta's entry. For connoisseurs of such things, Holliday bids farewell to his coat with great dignity!

German conductor Andreas Delfs (who shares duties during the run with 21-year-old Venezuelan Ilyich Rivas – youth again!) is indulgent of his singers, sometimes at the expense of momentum, but presides over a well-integrated and musically satisfying evening.