La Boheme, Royal Albert Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

And, boy, do we ever get one. Subtle detailing on an immense scale is what the director Francesca Zambello and her designers Peter J Davison (set) and Sue Wilmington (costume) so generously give us. When Rudolfo and Mimi start to get serious in the burgeoning moonlight, the sound of their music swelling to cosmic heights (the Royal Philharmonic under the sure and steady hands of David Parry), there's a sense of the intimate writ large. In such moments, the little garret at the heart of the arena is seen in the context of a much, much broader canvas. We care about these lives, this romance, but millions like them, one feels, are happening all over Paris as a new era ushers in more hopeful times.

Zambello's use of space is in itself thrilling. Puccini helps her along with his explosive segue into the Café Momus scene, suddenly flooding the intimate canvas with all human life. But from the moment the trumpets sound, the illuminated Momus sign descends from the Albert Hall dome, and dozens upon dozens of bodies - soldiers, sailors, street performers, traders, and all manner of punters - stream in from every corner of the auditorium, you just know that you are unlikely to see this second act more vividly realised. You almost don't know where to look. But Zambello, with great directorial skill, pulls our focus to a single table on that particular boulevard as roller-skating waiters keep le vin flowing.

It's a mark of Puccini's genius, of course, and that of his librettists, that, in the midst of all this joie de vivre, the key relationships are so cleverly advanced. The arrival of Marcello's ex-lover Musetta - cabaret singer and, in more senses than one, a true lady of the night - amusingly offsets the intensifying love between Mimi and Rudolfo.

Majella Cullagh is a fiery, charismatic, red-head of a Musetta whose "waltz song" is delivered into a roving microphone while her adoring public alternately swoon or take cover from her queenly theatrics. One advantage of the beautifully modulated sound design (Bobby Aitken) is that the normally inaudible "asides" -especially those of her government minister sugar-daddy Alcindoro - can be easily caught. The climax of this scene is a complete knock out, with Marcello (the first-rate Mark Stone) embracing both the waltz song and Musetta while an advancing marching band once more galvanises the Latin Quarter.

The cast sound almost as good as they look. Anne Sophie Duprels's Mimi is actually French - a charming touch of serendipity - though her overly enunciated English vowels and slightly plummy middle voice tend to occlude the words. Still, she's pretty and heartfelt and rises to all the big moments - as does Victor Ryan Robertson's dashing Rudolfo. His voice is a bit more musical theatre than grand opera - a little narrow at the top. But he delivers body and soul and, like his fellow bohemians - Dean Robinson (Colline), lovely in the coat number, and Richard Burkhard (Schaunard) - he's real.

Emotional truth and spectacle. You see, they are compatible.

To 11 March (020-7589 8212)

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