Tuesday, 21 January 2014

La Boheme

Opera Australia must be very grateful to Giacomo Puccini. Three Puccini operas; La Boheme, Madama Butterfy and Tosca regularly appear in the season and are guaranteed to be box office successes whilst a fourth opera, Turandot, is performed less often but also draws the conservative and less adventurous opera lovers like myself who enjoy the old war horse productions but who run a mile from obscure baroque or medieval or the like offerings.

More recently companies have tinkered with these standard operas with varying success. An Opera Australia production of Tosca several years back, based on an interpretation from the north of England, completely changed its settings and time thus greatly polarising audiences. I was both perplexed by the interpretation and yet enjoyed the production mostly because of the outstanding performances of the principal singers.

Famously Baz Lurhmann updated La Boheme for Opera Australia from its traditional end of 19th century setting (it premiered on 1 February 1896) to the Paris of the 1950s employing young and cinematically attractive singers. This refreshed the work and was mostly successful, being not too deviant from the beloved classical interpretation unlike the aforementioned Tosca which offended too many traditional punters. Lurhmann, later went a step further staging La Boheme on Broadway as though it were a musical and he employed three rotating ensemble casts to manage the workload of an eight times per week performance schedule.

And so this year La Boheme is back on the schedule.

La Boheme, Opera Australia
It is not quite a traditional production. The setting has moved from late 19th century to, my guess is, the mid 1930s. Acts 1 and 4 look pretty traditional except that the costumes are clearly neither 19th century nor 1950s. Otherwise there is nothing to suggest that we are anywhere but in a garret somewhere in Paris. Not that I noticed, anyway. The giveaway break from the traditional is Act 2 and to a lesser extent Act 3. Act 2, the jolly Cafe Momus Act, appears very much to be set in Berlin in the 1930s. There is a sprinkling of Nazi officers in what is a lecherous cafe and even the Hitler Youth make an appearance in the Act's climactic moments. There are numerous images redolent of the Berlin cafes of the era. Now this setting makes for some arresting images - and works on that level - but otherwise it seems to have little connection with where the plot lies.

Act 3 is sparse and snowbound - so in that regard appears traditional - but there are still a couple of Nazi references; albeit rather low key.

This production has one interval between Acts 2 and 3. The changes between the other Acts were handled by way of a transition without interval but with quite different levels of success at last Saturday's matinee. The transition between Acts 1 and 2, with set adjustments and all, was done with a blackout and the curtain remained raised. It was effected smoothly and quickly. A successful transition. The transition between Acts 3 and 4 was another matter. This time the curtain was lowered, a brief blackout followed and then the lights raised but a long delay ensued whilst the audience listened firstly to the noise of the set changing and then became restless and talkative. An unsuccessful transition I believe. The mood established until then had been broken. Perhaps it could have been better to dim the lights but leave the curtain raised enabling the audience to view the scene change. This method is used occasionally in stage dramas and seems to work OK.

For mine the success of an opera performance lies in the orchestra and the singers. If I'm moved by their work then those other curiosities I mentioned are of less concern to me.

In this instance work of the six principal singers and of the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra was wonderful.

I particularly single out Ji-Min Park whose Rodolfo was glorious and powerful of voice and also noteworthy were Natalie Aroyan (Mimi) and Giorgio Caoduro (Marcello); all three supported well by  Shane Lowrencev (Shaunard), Sharon Prero (Musetta) and Richard Anderson (Colline). The whole company, children and all, contributed to a memorable musical experience.

I've seen Mimi die plenty of times in Sydney and at Covent Garden as well as on film. Musically, this was as good and moving as any of them.

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