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La boheme opera review (Sydney Harbour)

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Andy Morton has been directing traffic harbourside for the last six Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour spectaculars: from Gale Edwards’ infectious Carmen in 2013, to La Fura dels Baus’ contemporary Madame Butterfly in 2014, Edwards’ brash Aida in 2015, Chen Shi-Zheng’s thoughtful Turandot in 2016 and a Carmen remount in 2017.

But in each production Morton has worked as assistant director or, last year, reviving someone else’s work. In 2018, he’s handed the keys to Australia’s biggest stage, directing a production of his very own making. For the very first time.

La boheme demonstrates Morton is not overawed by the challenge. His creative choices are bold; the spectacle that Sydney has come to expect from this blockbuster alfresco entertainment is delivered. But those choices don’t always serve the piece or the venue. His apprenticeship hasn’t taught him the mistakes of harbour productions past.

La boheme doesn’t lack fans, nor the flexibility to cater for mainstream audiences. If Baz Luhrmann can take it to Broadway, it can stand the rigours of a windswept stage and amplified acoustics. Yes, it’s an intimate opera, with rarely more than half a dozen performers on stage. But that can be said of Butterfly and La traviata on the harbour previously. Those productions made the most of the chorus scenes and still successfully captivated in the small moments.

Morton’s boheme doesn’t really do either particularly well. And attempts to overlay a more contemporary politics on the bohemian struggle are haphazard.

The decision to drag the piece forward some 140 years to the Paris of 1968, amid riots in the Latin Quarter, is a perfectly legitimate exercise. But it’s a pointless one if the audience isn’t in on it. There are few clues: the groovy costumes almost alone, at least until interval when Bob Dylan warbles over the sound system, the almost always badly employed projections (Marco Devetak is video designer) flash newspaper articles and the burning wrecks of cars, presumably overturned and ignited by protesters, are craned onto the tiered stage.

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On Dan Porta’s set, the draughty loft of our ragtag artists is set far back from the front of the stage, immediately distancing us from the protagonists in act one. Thankfully Puccini’s ethereal arias draw us in. On opening night, Korean tenor Ho-Yoon Chung as Rodolfo made his, Che gelida manina, the involuntarily head-tilting moment you want it to be. So too mini-skirted Mimi’s musical answer Sì, mi chiamano Mimì by the Romanian soprano Iulia Maria Dan, on debut in Australia. The pair are well matched and imbue the young lovers with the right impetuous spirit. They alternate the roles with Australian Paul O’Neill and Latvian Mimi specialist Maija Kovalevska.

The stage comes alive in act two as the lovers skip through the streets, dodging a clown in a garbage can floating aloft by balloons, but quickly becomes chaotic as we arrive at the cafe. Sultry songstress Musetta shows up with police escort and, thanks to the fine vocal chops of Australian soprano Julie Lea Goodwin (who performs each night, impressively), commands the stage with her famed waltz, Quando m’en vo. But her on-again-off-again relationship with Marcello (Samuel Dundas/Christopher Tonkin) isn’t easily established. And our new lovers, who sing crucial storytelling accompaniment, disappear into the background. It’s frankly poor blocking, choreography (designed by Kate Champion) and lighting (Matthew Marshall), not helped by a wandering followspot on review night.

Acts three and four are more coherent. The show seems to work better the fewer people are on stage. The principal cast (including Richard Anderson as Colline, Christopher Hillier as Schaunard and John Bolton Wood as the debt-chasing landlord Benoit) cut through the melodrama and mayhem. Despite every obstacle, the sound design of these outdoor performances (Tony David Cray leads the audio team) impresses each year. Brian Castles-Onion, who’s conducted each of the Handa Opera events, again leads an unmuddied, well-paced orchestra beneath the snow-capped stage.

And did I mention there are fireworks? Plus a snow machine that rains suds on the most expensive seats (cover those sparkling flutes). The once-a-year outdoor opera crowd won’t be disappointed. But this boheme isn’t the artistic achievement of past harbour works. Morton, directing his first opera on one of the world’s prettiest stages, has been a little hung out to dry. You can’t help but wonder what a more experienced director could have done leading the bohemians outside.

Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour plays until April 22

6 responses to “La boheme opera review (Sydney Harbour)

  1. Re: April 7 performance

    I too was very disappointed, having seen Turandot and Aida on the Harbour,
    I also agree that the amplification was too loud, affecting the quality of the sound and the tone and texture of the voices which was almost completely lost. They sounds of the voices did not convey the emotion- particularly in the first half of the performance. There wasnt the thrill there should have been with the well known arias. The staging was not explained and the special affects were gratuitous to the performance (eg lifting the cars using the crane; the balloons etc )

    I will be thinking hard before I commit to another performance.

  2. I was disappointed, having seen Turandot and Aida on the Harbour,
    The amplification was too loud, affecting the quality of the sound, I believe, but more importantly the 60’s costumes did not work for me. Too modern. They didn’t die like that of “consumption” in the 60’s you know, and somehow the essential pathos was lacking.

  3. Very disappointed. Have seen La Bohème many times and it just doesn’t work at that venue.
    Have seen 4 operas on the harbour now and whilst getting shuttlebus back to carpark the excitement talking about opera just seen is electrifying. Not so last night it was quiet. The silence said it all.
    Sadly will not recommend it. In previous years have bored everybody telling them they must go!
    Not this year.

  4. we saw this in Bregenz, Austria, on the Boden Lake and had wonderful weather and equel performance with Villazon and?

  5. Booooh to Mr Whittaker! I have been going to operas for over 60 years, La Boheme is one of my favourites and I was not disappointed. In fact, I was surprised at how much emotion poured from the stage. It was very moving. Perhaps Mr Whittaker had a bad dinner and was in the wrong mood. I would recommend it to anyone and everyone who wants a great night out.

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