Millennium Centre, Cardiff

Location, location, location appears to have been a maxim for Welsh National Opera's new La Bohème. Part of director Annabel Arden's training was in Paris, and her affinity with the city is clear in this staging. While updating it to Puccini's own time, she and designer Stephen Brimson Lewis capture an atmosphere that is true both to Paris and to Henry Murger's book Scenes of Bohemian Life, the original inspiration for the opera.

The bustling Cafe Momus of act two actually existed and is authentically set here with the spans of the bridge over the Seine in the background. Everything else is suggested by a modicum of means: the artists' garret of the opening has only a suspended door and high window against a gauze surround featuring the city skyline, eventually whisked away to reveal a Klein blue starlit sky. Arden has also realised a nice complicity in the quartet of artist, poet, philosopher and musician, their poverty offset by idealism and bonhomie.

This energy, matched in the pit by conductor Carlo Rizzi, characterises the production. It's not without its quirks, though; camera shutters defining scenes are intrusive, while a Planet of the Apes figure in a checked suit bounds around the cafe to no obvious end, but joins the final lineup of principals at the curtain.

The strongest portrayal comes from David Kempster, whose Marcello makes the volatile relationship with Kate Valentine's feisty Musetta a strong balance for the lovers Rodolfo and Mimì. Alex Vicens' tenor is a little too coarse for comfort, but the slight Hartig is a vulnerable and touchingly credible Mimì. David Soar's Colline and Gary Griffiths' Schaunard offer strong support.

Rating: 4/5

Rian Evans
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