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.
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