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31st January 2023

Review: Ellen Kent’s La Bohème

Ellen Kent took the audience at Manchester Opera House back in time with her stylish take on Puccini’s La Bohème
Review: Ellen Kent’s La Bohème
Photo: Ellen Kent

Puccini’s La bohème (1896) follows the lives of a group of young artists, including Rodolfo (Sorin Lupu), a poet, Marcello (Olexandr Forkushak), a painter, Schaunard (Vitalii Cebotari), a musician, and Colline (Valeriu Cojocaru), a philosopher, as they struggle to make ends meet and pursue their passions. Despite their hardships, the friends find joy in their art, companionship with one another, and love with the women they meet, including Mimi (Alyona Kistenyova) and Musetta (Olga Perrier). However, the love story between Rodolfo and Mimi is short-lived as Mimi’s illness takes a turn for the worse, leading to a heartbreaking conclusion.

Photo: Ellen Kent

Award-winning director Ellen Kent‘s production of La Bohème at Manchester Opera House was a feast for the senses and a testament to her mastery. The forced-perspective stage design was simply stunning and transported the audience to Belle Époque Paris, complete with the city’s iconic buildings and intricate details, such as smoke billowing from chimneys. However, the overuse of the Eiffel tower as a focal point detracted from the rest of the production and felt a bit excessive.

The costume design was generally well done, although there were a few exceptions that detracted from the overall look and feel of the performance. Marcello’s sweater, for instance, was out of place for the period, and landlord Benoit’s (Eugeniu Ganea) bald cap appeared to have been sourced from a cheap fancy dress shop.

Photo: Ellen Kent

The singing by the cast was nothing short of phenomenal, with Kistenyova delivering a particularly powerful and emotional performance as Mimi. However, her singing was sometimes consistently loud, lacking the subtleties needed to fully capture the character’s emotional journey. The conductor, Vasyl Vasylenko, also deserves credit for leading the Ukrainian Opera and Ballet Theatre Kyiv and drawing out the best in the musicians.

Unfortunately, the performance had some missed opportunities, such as the military tattoo, which could have been more impactful with a larger group of soldiers. Also, the opera’s timeline was disrupted with the sudden shift from winter to spring in the second act and back to winter in the third act.

Photo: Ellen Kent

The themes of La Bohème, such as the struggle to afford basic necessities, are still relevant today and resemble the cost of living crisis faced by many people in the UK. However, the portrayal of women as delicate, soft, sweet flowers and the sexist language and attitudes towards them can be seen as outdated and out of step with contemporary values.

Of course, operas and the fine arts in general are not streaming services that require warnings about viewer discretion: we must remember that the libretto was written in 19th-century Italy so duets like ‘Grab my arm, little one (Rodolfo) – Yes sir, I obey (Mimi)’ are often present.

Photo: Robert L Gyorgyi @ The Mancunion

Overall, while there were a few areas where the performance of La Bohème could have been improved, it was a memorable and enjoyable experience. The stunning stage set and great costume design, combined with the powerful singing and the moving performance of the Ukrainian national anthem after the show, made for a night to remember.


Ellen Kent is touring the UK with three operas (Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, Puccini’s La Boheme, and Verdi’s Aida) until May 8. The three operas were performed over consecutive nights at Manchester Opera House, beginning with Madama Butterfly.

Most cities are only getting two operas; we feel very fortunate to have gotten to cover all three of them in Manchester. Be sure to check out our reviews of the other two operas. Ellen Kent told me that she will return to Manchester in 2024.

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