Image by Tristram Kenton
La bohème may be one of the most frequently performed operas in the world but it remains deceptively difficult to stage. This is because the story of Parisian artists glimpsing love amidst cold and hunger requires human frailty to be reconciled with Puccini's ethereal score.
In his production for the English National Opera Jonathan Miller does not shy away from the challenge. By moving the action forward a century to 1930s depression-soaked Paris, he ups the stakes by making the characters even more human and hence the gulf to be bridged that much wider.
But he succeeds with the aid of Isabella Bywater's sets that combine the magic of Christmas Eve with the drudgery of Parisian slums and the realism of a modest first-floor flat. The ensemble dynamic is also strong as the youths boot their landlord down the stairs, and propel the scene where they dine out with strong visual gestures.
Gwyn Hughes Jones and Elizabeth Llewellyn have marvellous chemistry as the lovers, Rodolfo and Mimi. Hughes Jones has amazing vocal presence while Llewellyn demonstrates both innocence and understanding in her fine acting and powerful singing. As Musetta, Mairead Buicke's voice possesses enough of a piercing quality to befit the character's feisty nature, yet remains sufficiently rounded in tone. In the pit, Stephen Lord elicits passion and intensity from the orchestra while maintaining a balanced and controlled sound.
When Miller's production first appeared in February 2009, it captured the ensemble dynamic well but the singing was of a lower standard. This time around it has nailed the whole package.
Until 27 January (thirteen performances).Tickets: 0871 911 02000 or from the ENO website. Alfie Boe plays Rodolfo on 22, 25 and 27 January
by Samuel Smith.