Review: La Boheme,Opera North, Leeds Grand Theatre, Wednesday, October 16, 2019

THE locale for Opera North’s classic production of Puccini’s La Boheme is bedsit land in the Latin Quarter of Paris during the early 1960s. Though Rudolfo and Marcello’s unkempt room, adorned with a parked motor bike and festooned with silk screen portraits of the latter’s girl friend Musetta, could just as easily be in “Bohemian” Headingley, Hyde Park or Woodhouse.

Therein lies the enduring appeal of this production, originally directed by Phyllida Lloyd in 1993 and last revived five years ago with the strap line: “If you only see one musical this year, make it La Boheme”.

Lloyd’s concept makes it so easy for young, and not so young audiences, to relate to the joy, exuberance and, ultimately, the shared grief of these close friends. The characters are brought into even sharper focus by casting an upcoming generation of international singers who actually look like lean and hungry twenty-something Bohemians.

Revival director Michael Barker-Caven draws sparky interaction and flashes of humour from Yuriy Yurchuk’s smooth- toned Marcello and Samantha Clark’s flirtatious Musetta. The blossoming love affair between Thomas Atkins as Rudolfo and Katie Bird as Mimi is sensitively handled. Although I regret their sublime duet O Suave Fanciulla, delivered in front of a full moon backdrop, is not faded out in this production.

The festive Cafe Momus scene is enlivened by an animated Opera North Chorus and Opera North Youth Chorus. They dress the stage as Christmas Eve revellers, colourful show girls, marching bands and a procession of Santas. Stuart Laing adds a menacing twist as Parpignol, a toy seller. The vibrancy and perpetual motion of this scene creates the illusion that many more than the full ensemble of around 70 are on stage.

All, of course, ends in tragedy with the death of Puccini’s most endearing heroine. Katie Bird’s Mimi is deeply moving and, as the distraught Rudolfo cries out her name, you will be reaching for more tissues. Renato Balsadonna and the Orchestra of Opera North extract every emotional nuance from Puccini’s sumptuous musical score.

La Boheme continues at Leeds Grand Theatre on October 22, 23, 24 and 26.

Geoffrey Mogridge