Music, Stage

La Boheme review (Sydney Opera House)

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It’s Rent, really. With these sets and costumes, high rent.
I’ve lost count of the number of times this production of Puccini’s punchy opera La Boheme has been around. But I do know it premiered at Melbourne’s Arts Centre on April 12, almost four years ago. (What’s four times 525, 600 minutes?) You’d think it might be starting to look a bit well-worn, tired and tattered, as The Magic Flute, opening the night before did. But I’m most pleased to report very much to the contrary. I’ve loved it each time I’ve seen it. And I probably loved it even more, last night, for its 2015 debut. And what’s not to like?
First of all, it’s Puccini; a master of romance, making his big, broad, sweeping brushstrokes on the operatic canvas. To match the brilliance and appeal of the score is an intelligent, poetic libretto equal to it, by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica. It’s in Italian, of course, which only serves to adorn its beauty. Over the years we’ve had a series of Rodolfos and Mimis, all of them outstanding. And the strongest of supporting casts, as well. There’s the obvious but nonetheless incisive resetting of the action, by director Gale Edwards, in the dying days of the short-lived Weimar republic. This brings pathos beyond individual torment: indeed, lovers’ trials and tribulations become a metaphor for burgeoning societal ones. There’s are sets that transform like chameleons. Not only that, they look both opulent and realistic. Costumes that capture the full, delicious licentiousness of the moment. It’s truly immersive and would triumph on the strength of spectacularity alone.
But then there are the singers. And actors. Of course, the two don’t always coincide completely. The coquettish Musetta’s beau of convenience, the wealthy, older government minister, Alcindoro (Adrian Tamburini), with his skunk-like shocks of white hair punctuating grey, is wonderful in his lesser role, falling over himself to please the anything-but-ingenue and feigning apoplectic at her outrageous behaviour. Lorina Gore is Musetta and has been for several years. Along the way, she’s lost none of her zeal or incandescence. Not only does she sing as vivaciously and robustly as you might hope for a character supposed to be a cabaret performer, but calibrates the tricky, world-wearied transition from goodtime girl to eleventh-hour Florence Nightingale with dramatic credibility.
David Parkin is a little backseat as Colline, the down-at-heel philosopher, but sounds solid. By contrast, Shane Lowrencev’s musician, Schaunard, seems to get fruitier with every performance and reverses the polarity: it’s the novelty of his mincing peacock (and you should see his companions), rather than vocal distinction, that’s the most memorable dimension of his performance. But it seemed just a little casual, last night. Andrew Jones’ Marcello (a painter), holed-up in a cathedral-like garret (albeit with the patina of poverty) sports a baritone as handsome as his visage; he, too, blessed by complementary theatrical abilities, that make his nigh-on brotherly friendship with the poet and chief protagonist, Rodolfo, teeter on genuinely touching.
But, even in this company, there’s no holding back the shimmer and sheer luminosity of the two leads: Maija Kovalevska is, frankly, an awkward actor, so deliberate and pre-meditated in most of her smiles, grimaces, faints, surprises and surrenders that I could barely help but smile to myself; but, that voice makes up for any number of shortcomings in the former department. It’s no wonder at all she shot to prominence, like a supernova, including via the very role she plays here, as Mimi, in Zeffirelli’s La Boheme at The Met. Not only can her native instrument register about eleven on the Richter scale, but, despite that, never succumbs to the slightest shrillness. It is, simply, wonderful. But no moreso than the impeccably-controlled tenor of Diego Torre, as Rodolfo. Torre’s delivery could, for my money, go head-to-head against any of the three tenors, any day of the year. If one were to able to specify the precise qualities required to create the quintessential voice in this range and test it, exhaustively, in a lab, this might well be the one that would emerge. No, really. It’s that good. And even better, on the night.
Certainly, it’s performative quality that keeps this production very much alive-and-well. But it’s also the standard of the production itself: the imagination of its director; the commitment of revival directors, Matthew Barclay and Andy Morton, who seem to have tweaked its many strengths; the lush, loving rendition of Puccini’s score by the consistently fabulous Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, under Andrea Molino; the superlative craft of designers Brian Thomson (set), Julie Lynch (costume) and John Rayment (lighting). Thomson, especially, deserves a bloody knighthood. Or something better, if we’ve got it.
The rather paltry and slightly impoverished, fading artistry of Taymor’s The Magic Flute and enriched, embroidered status of La Boheme shows just how hard it is to generalise. The Zeffirelli production I spoke of has been playing in New York for well over 30 years and I’m sure it’s not out of mere deference to a living Italian master. One is tired, tattered and begging to be superannuated and put out to pasture; the other, of similar vintage has gone from strength to strength. No rhyme. No reason. Isn’t that just like opera?
[box]La Boheme is at the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House until January 16. Featured image by Branco Gaica[/box]

One response to “La Boheme review (Sydney Opera House)

  1. OA’s La Boheme does the company proud. I saw the Zeffirelli’s Boheme at the end of last year’s Met season – NOT with Ms Kovalevska, I should add. Her replacement’s voice showed the ware and wobble of 20 years singing at the Met. Rodolfo had a cavalier disrespect for Puccini’s rhythms and the conductor’s tempi. The other casting was questionable and the 150 or more on stage for the Momus scene were grouped in blocks according to voices and mostly static. Yawn. The lighting was bland and altogether it was a lacklustre night in the theatre. The subscriber in the next seat told me she wouldn’t be coming back for Act 4, which I almost didn’t. But she also told me that Peter Gelb would be lynched if he replaced the production. (I’d risk it, if I were he.) But the moral is: what you see on the Met Live movies is not necessarily what you get in the theatre. Opera Australia should be applauded for its consistency.

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