Love and death arrive swiftly, without warning, in La Bohème. Sparingly dressed and strikingly unsentimental, Annabel Arden's Welsh National Opera staging narrows the gap between Puccini's opera and the rackety collection of stories on which it was based, Henri Murger's Scenes from the Latin Quarter: a carousel of dodged bills, messy break-ups and pawned clothes.
Transposed to the cusp of the First World War, poet Rodolfo (Alex Vicens), painter Marcello (David Kempster), philosopher Colline (Piotr Lempa), musician Schaunard (Daniel Grice) and the gaggle of transvestites and street performers that surround the Café Momus have become tourist attractions for the rich. TB has lost its cultish glamour and the abject poverty of Orwell's Paris is within sight. Arden and her designer, Stephen Brimson Lewis, emphasise the self-contained nature of each act. The zinc roof-tops and low-slung bridges of Paris are traced in the distance, broken now and then by Fauvist splashes of paint against a dirty window, or flocks of birds.
Rodolfo and friends are presented as genuinely poor, too close-knit to admit outsiders, selfish and silly. What draws Mimi (Giselle Allen) and Musetta (Kate Valentine) to them? In Mimi's case, a need for someone who will understand the intensity with which she responds to the colours and imagined scents of the flowers she embroiders. In Musetta's, a mix of tenderness and lust. And though Puccini allows no direct exchange between the two until Act IV, their mutual recognition in Acts II and III is a powerful aspect of Arden's production.
Conductor Simon Phillipo propels the orchestra at a feverish speed, all heel-of-the-bow swoon and sudden stillness. Kempster's Marcello has charm and authority, while Vicens swerves artfully from preening infatuation to jealousy and resentment, only learning to love Mimi when it is too late. More than a cry-on-command love story, La bohème depicts a way of life, and Arden is assiduous in her portrayal of the wider society of the Quartier Latin. The chorus of Parisians gives piquant support, as does Michael Clifton-Thompson, a sinister Parpignol dressed as a monkey. But Valentine's sophisticated, generously voiced Musetta and Allen's hollow-eyed, dreaming, dangerous Mimi steal the show, making flesh and blood from Murger's vignettes, sisters under the skin.
Two annual productions at the Peacock Theatre showcase young vocal talent to audiences heavy with agents and casting directors. British Youth Opera's interesting repertoire choices are pitched towards operas where everyone has a chance to shine. Hence Judith Weir's 1987 A Night at the Chinese Opera, with its sour-sweet juxtapositions of Brittenesque trios and duets, delicate colours, and stories within stories.
Cautiously conducted by Lionel Friend, Stuart Barker's production favoured simplicity over spectacle, with muted movement direction and fluent bunraku puppetry. Weir's sheer orchestral textures flatter young voices, and the keening chinoiserie of Act II's opera-within-an-opera is lightly traced. Outstanding in a committed cast were Johnny Herford as the doomed hero, Chao Lin, Helen Bruce as the chirruping housekeeper Mrs Chin and the gnomic Old Crone, and Catherine Backhouse, Louise Kemeny and Peter Kirk as the three Actors whose fate is sealed by the man whose past and future they in turn reveal. The ending was particularly tart, as a single clay head rolled on to the stage, rocked and was finally still in a pool of light.
'La bohème' (02920 636464) to 5 Oct, then touring
Annilese Miskimmon's La traviata for Scottish Opera opens at the Eastwood Park Theatre, Giffnock; Vasily Petrenko conducts the Liverpool Phil in the world premiere of Kurt Schwertsik's Flute Concerto (both 20 Sep). A weekend of Brahms and Szymanowski opens the LSO's season, conducted by Valery Gergiev at the Barbican (22-23 Sep).