OPERA / Love in a cold climate: Stephen Walsh gives a warm welcome to WNO's latest revival of Puccini's wintry heart-warmer

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With a weather eye on the new Tristan next week, Welsh National Opera opened the spring season unsensationally in Cardiff on Monday with a revival of La Boheme in the old Goran Jarvefelt production, originally knocked together a couple of months after the company took fright at some particularly ghoulish Romanian plot to set the piece in a Brazilian rain forest.

Jarvefelt's Boheme, crisply rehearsed by Ceri Sherlock, is firmly located in Montmartre: but it is very much a stage Montmartre, where there is always a table on hand to leap on to for the next aria, and where the horseplay is candidly for the amusement of the theatre audience. To some extent this is Puccini's own way.

Whether he would have approved the now fairly traditional brazenness of the once demure Mimi (she openly disposes of her key and blows out her candle, whereupon Rodolfo has to blow out about five more to achieve the desired Tristanesque darkness) is another question. It barely harms the work. And certainly, casting from youth, as WNO has done here, does it no damage at all, sustaining both its realism and its theatricality.

Anyone, of course, can cast young; but WNO has also cast well. From curtain-up one senses that it will be a good evening. Paul Charles Clarke (Rodolfo) and Jason Howard (Marcello) are idiomatic Bohemians, completely on top of their music. Clarke's is not so much a robust tenor as a well- bodied tenore di grazia, musically used and cleanly projected. His 'Che gelida manina' ('Your tiny hand is frozen') loses nothing from its lack of overt Italianism. Opposite him, Mary Callan Clarke is vocally a somewhat skinny Mimi. She rather loses her battle with the conductor John Pryce Jones for the spotlight in 'Mi chiamano Mimi', but she is genuinely touching in her later (intended) distress and particularly in her delicate little 'Sono andati?' - which Puccini repeats as her orchestral epitaph.

These two apart, the star of the evening - as Puccini no doubt meant her to be - is the Musetta of Alwyn Mellor. She gives a vibrant, sexy waltz-song, and flounces merrily at the Barriere d'Enfer. This is a young singer with a big future. The quality, though, is maintained in the smaller parts. Stephen Gadd (Colline) and Karl Morgan Daymond (Schaunard) are both excellent, and there are charming vignettes from James Miller- Coburn (Benoit) and Peter Massocchi (Alcindoro).

Under Pryce Jones, there is plenty of impulse and we hear a lot of the orchestra. Not usually too much, in my view, though with young voices there are occasional problems. The playing, however, is superb and well worth hearing for the light it throws on Puccini's instinctive brilliance as an orchestrator - an aspect of his genius not always given the credit it deserves.

In rep at Cardiff New Theatre (0222 394844) to 17 Feb, and then on tour

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