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BWW Review: LA BOHÈME, London Coliseum

Puccini's great opera of cold hands and warm hearts is perfectly judged for these times

BWW Review: LA BOHÈME, London Coliseum

BWW Review: LA BOHÈME, London Coliseum There'll be room for more adventurous programming in the future but, after both sides of the fourth wall have been battered by Delta and Omicron, the English National Opera revives its Jonathan Miller's 2009 production of the Puccini tearjerker for a fifth time. Those who have seen it before will flock back and those who have never seen an opera could not wish for a more accessible introduction. Let's not be too precious: bums on seats aren't just desirable right now, they're necessary.

Keeping Paris but relocating the time frame to the 1930s (with strong resonances to the present day of course), Miller found inspiration in the candid photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Brassaï. His designer, Isabella Bywater, creates pools of light in darkened streets to portend danger and temptation in equal measure, the demi-monde always lurking in that liminal space, half way to hell but half way to paradise, a life most definitely worth living, if only you can survive.

We open on Rodolfo and his pals trying to stay warm because they can't afford the heating (plus ça change) when pale, beautiful, lonely Mimi knocks on their door asking for a light to her flickering candle. Eyes meet and it's not just the candle that's soon burning bright. But Mimi is coughing too often and Rodolfo is jealous (though that's underplayed a little in this version) and, well, it's Puccini, and you know what happens to his women.

David Junghoon Kim may not have matinee idol looks, but he sings with real heart and has a fantastic chemistry with his mates, the laddish banter (so often tiresome at best these days) perfectly capturing the energy and optimism of bohemian youth, living in the moment. If he is the most serious of the four musketeers, Charles Rice, tortured by his infatuation for Musetta, has the most fun, the painter embracing life with both arms even if his lover often fails to do the same to him.

But it's very pleasing to see the women so upfront and central in an opera that can caricature them as having too little and too much agency. Sinéad Campbell-Wallace has the soprano pipes to give full value to Mimi's fragile love and tragic fate, her singing melding into the music as the orchestra tells us as much about her as does the voice. Louise Alder has a lot of fun as Musetta, not as cruel as is sometimes the case, but provocative and kind, the free spirit with a coquettish Louise Brooks bob who will not be caged by convention, who's sexy and she knows it.

Comic relief is provided by baritone, Simon Butteriss, who puffs up with absurd self-regard both the landlord who cannot collect and the sugar daddy who pays for more than he expects in the bar and less than he expects in the boudoir. That balance between laughs and tears can be lost if the drama curdles to melodrama, but Miller didn't spend so much of his life with comedians without knowing exactly how much an audience needs to smile.

The score is one of opera's most famous and played with skill and emotional force by the English National Opera orchestra under the baton of Ben Glassberg. In a world of streaming, soundbars and earbuds, live music just feels different, more visceral, the product of natural materials like wood and brass, not bytes and bleeps. What a delight!

The only disappointment is that, in keeping the running time to a manageable 130 minutes including the interval, we see so little of the chorus, primarily as a "Consider Yourself" carnival of kids and traders outside the Rive Gauche Cafe Momus. The opera does focus quite tightly on its four boys and two girls, but if you have a chorus available, perhaps they could be used a bit more.

That's barely a quibble on a night of wonderful entertainment that anyone who enjoys something like Miss Saigon (based on another Puccini masterpiece, Madama Butterfly) will enjoy - in fact, any fan of musical theatre will love this show. Outside the auditorium, there's a variety of merch sporting a "CHOOSE OPERA" logo - excellent advice if this show is your pick.

La bohème is at the London Coliseum until 27 February



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From This Author - Gary Naylor