“Two tickets: La Bo-heem,” says desk sergeant Frank Oz.
“La Bohème - it’s an opera” corrects posh arrestee Dan Aykroyd.
If your awareness of Puccini’s masterpiece – or any other opera - amounts to the above exchange from Trading Places (guilty!), then this big-screen adaptation is a fine place to start expanding your cultural horizons.
For one thing, it has subtitles. And aficionados will be relieved that director Dornhelm represents safe hands in which to leave the maestro’s work, having earned an Academy Award nomination in 1977 for The Children On Theatre Street, a documentary about the Kirov School of Ballet.
The first act introduces us to impoverished wordsmith Rodolfo (Mexican tenor/Blackadder lookalike Villazón) and his equally hard-up pals: artist Marcello (George von Bergen), philosopher Colline (Vitaly Kovalyov) and musician Schaunard (Adrian Erod).
Since it’s Christmas Eve and they’re freezing, the lads head off to the pub while Rodolfo tries to write. But he’s barely dipped his quill when his chimes are rung by Mimi (Russian soprano/Juliette Binoche double Netrebko), the tubercular belle from downstairs.
Within minutes they’re in love. After ensuring that Mimi’s candle is well and truly lit (who knew opera threw up so many double entendres?), Rodolfo takes her to dinner with his chums.
From Chaplinesque romance we’re now in Oliver! territory as toy sellers bray and military bands play and Marcello has a showdown in the café with his brazen ex Musetta (Nicole Cabell). Passion is definitely in the air.
But these Bohemians are a fickle bunch. A month later Rodolfo has moved out, torn apart by jealousy and his inability to provide for his consumptive love, leaving her bedraggled and bereft in the falling snow.
They make up, but as everyone returns to Rodolfo’s Parisian loft, you know it’s all bound to end in tears.
With Mozart tending to hog the populist limelight, opera virgins may not recognise much of the music. La Boheme is less about great standalone moments than fitting less conspicuous pieces together to form a satisfying whole.
But rest assured, there’s no lack of gusto here, director Dornhelm complementing the virtuosity of his performers with pleasing camerawork and subtle stylistic flourishes (colour fades, split screens, and an impressively stark finale).
Never again will you wonder where they got the idea for Moulin Rouge.