In April, Raymond Gubbay's now well-established presence in the London operatic world will move on to a new footing of permanence when he launches his company at the Savoy Theatre. But he isn't letting go of his Albert Hall seasons, the basis of what all but the most grudging critics will have to admit is a success story of heartening proportions. The new production this time sits its audiences behind a full-sized set of railway lines. Could this be a Gubbay joke at the expense of people who kept placing his financially self-sufficient work on the wrong side of the tracks?
There is even a derailed wagon, though it would be stretching things to see that as a comment on subsidised opera.
This production updates Puccini's La Bohème, the archetypal story of love in a Latin Quarter garret, to the period just after the Second World War. It's a clever choice, the last time that central Paris paraded a mix of squalor and riches so that it puts the action within living memory. Peter Davison's set designs enjoy themselves with elements of the great Paris stations, which not only evoke place very precisely, but mesh wonderfully well with the Albert Hall's own 19th-century grandeur.
The artists' landlord becomes a seedy SNCF official offering dodgy lets of railway property, and a whole act is played out on the platform as the characters' relationships unravel. But the setting is adaptable and for the café scene it turns into a burgeoning sprawl of indoor and outdoor tables. It's a spectacular in the best traditions of the Gubbay show, with roller-skating waiters, street vendors, a juggler to keep the kids happy, tangos for the grown-ups, and a brilliant array of mid-20th-century clothing in Sue Wilmington's costume design.
All this lavishness might work against the opera's essential intimacy - you'd have thought it rather one for the Savoy - and for the opening few minutes the tight-knit quartet of the artists didn't project much into the auditorium.
Half of David Parry's new translation went for nothing - it sounded as nimble and stylish as his conducting when it could be heard. Yet as soon as the focus moved in on the main characters, Francesca Zambello's direction stripped away the distance and worked the arena effect of the all-round seating to generate a steady rise in intensity through to the inevitable but still devastating moment of Mimi's death.
Mary Plazas, a prospect to lift the spirits in this role, found a blend of sparkiness and vulnerability that made the bright, focused singing ring true.
The first-night Rodolfo, Peter Wedd, made the right vocal match, initially first among equals in the artists' foursome and then upping the lyrical freshness as well as the ardour.
Henry Waddington delivered a neat cameo as the landlord and a gross one as the sugar-daddy, the one jarring item in an effective ensemble production. Majella Cullagh made Musetta, the sugar-daddy passion, properly hard as nails towards men but a loyal friend to Mimi. Good work from the Royal Philharmonic orchestra.
To 13 March 2004 (020-7589 8212; www.royalalberthall.com)Reuse content