It is easy, in cynical times, to be jaded about the bittersweet beauties of Puccini's La boheme, echoing American critic Virgil Thomson who suggested there was nothing more poignant than its surefire mix of youth, love and tuberculosis.

Jacqueline Coats, in her first main stage production for New Zealand Opera, balances poignancy and pathos with a directorial approach that is refreshingly traditional.

It looks tantalisingly 19th century, thanks to Elizabeth Whiting's costuming flair, offset by the starkness of Rachael Walker's sets, particularly in the looming architecture of Act III.
Don't expect a Quality Street splash of colour in Act II, where sober hues surround a red neon Café Momus sign and, rather cleverly, red balloons carried by performer Manase Latu's ebullient Parpignol.

Yet Coats catches the social bustle and bristle of her cast and chorus through vigorous and inventive stage business. This talent was apparent from the opening scene, with Thomas Atkins and his three companions, Nicholas Lester, Julien Van Mellaerts and Timothy Newton, joshing and jostling as if choreographed to do so.

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Tobias Ringborg, in his third Puccini outing with the company, sweeps this fine quartet along in the irresistible momentum created by Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra.

If there are moments where voices occasionally fall under orchestral surges, it's a small sacrifice for enjoying the natural bloom of young singers. Atkins and Marlena Devoe are memorable as the doomed Rodolfo and Mimi, from their first heart-stopping encounter to Devoe's moving death scene, its setting having been ingeniously created by strolling chorus members, against an ominous tolling bell.

Amelia Berry as Musetta works well with Lester's strong-voiced Marcello. The strains of her celebrated waltz dominate the Momus scene, as she herself does, with the same vocal assurance and keen characterization displayed earlier this year in Candide.

Not to be missed.

What: NZ Opera - La boheme
Where and when: ASB Theatre at the Aotea Centre; Wednesday, Friday and Sunday
Reviewed by: William Dart