OPERA / Breathless masterpiece: Nick Kimberley on Phyllida Lloyd's new production of Puccini's La Boheme in Leeds

IT'S NOT uncommon in opera for everything to happen during the interval. In La Boheme, Puccini is so wrapped up in the antics of his young bloods that he scarcely leaves room for any plot at all. We see the bohemians revelling in make-believe poverty, rooking the landlord, fiddling the restaurant bill, wearing their art on their sleeves (and then burning it) - and with one cough Mimi has consumption and dies. For a would-be three- handkerchief job, it allows little time to build up a good head of tears. (And surely it's a stroke of folly to present the two show-stopping arias back-to- back in the very first act?)

I suspect Phyllida Lloyd, who directs Opera North's new production, might agree. In a recent radio interview, she suggested that the four male bohemians are nice middle-class boys slumming it, safe in the knowledge that, if the going gets tough, there's family money to fall back on. Quite. If the art for which they suffer is only fit for use as firelighters, how can we take them seriously? And, if we can't do that, how are we to get involved?

In an attempt to cut through the persiflage, Lloyd sets her staging in the Paris of the 1950s or 1960s, allowing Jane Leslie MacKenzie's Mimi to emerge winningly as a Juliette Greco type. Lloyd's source material, reflected in some of Anthony Ward's designs, includes those gritty monochrome photos by great Parisian documentarists like Brassai and Robert Doisneau, but the atmosphere only occasionally matches the opera, which has an altogether rosier view of the Parisian demi-monde.

And then there are the bohemians themselves, caught somewhere between Tony Hancock's action-painting charlatan in The Rebel, and the grimy reprobates in The Young Ones - Graeme Broadbent's Colline seems modelled directly on Neil, the mordant hippy. To render them explicable, even sympathetic, in our terms is a fair aim; too often the the result is merely amusing, although cast and audience enjoy it hugely. The fact that laughter outweighs the sobs suggests that this is a Boheme from several steps back, as signalled in the use of a tilting picture-frame as a false proscenium, holding the action in.

Yet, if Puccini's score is to strike home, it needs not distancing devices but full-blooded melodrama. The physical language Phyllida Lloyd has given her cast relies rather heavily on emphatic mime, a fact not helped by giving the opera in un-surtitled Italian: when landlord Benoit sings about a woman, his hands duly describe an hourglass to ensure that we know what he's on about. Still, Lloyd's enthusiastic, fresh-voiced singers throw themselves wholeheartedly into their roles, defying us to resist. As Musettas often do, Juliet Booth brings the house down. If the voice occasionally veers alarmingly, this is a tart who is all heart, a Musetta in the Barbara Windsor mould. The American tenor William Burden, making his European debut, is a physically stiff Rodolfo, although the ardour in the voice warms more than Mimi's hands.

Best of all is MacKenzie's Mimi, no simpering waif but a determined woman with a firm, true voice and plenty of stage presence. This is a Mimi truly a bout de souffle, and her fate underlines the vacuity of the rest of the opera. When the orchestra, firmly handled by Roy Laughlin, signals her death with three mighty blasts, we, like Rodolfo, are stunned into realisation of what has been at stake, but by then it is too late, the opera has only seconds to run.

In rep at Leeds Grand (0532 459351)