La Bohème – Giacomo Puccini
Opera Australia 4 January 2014
Joan Sutherland Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House.
When is an operatic first night not a first night? Well, for Opera Australia, it’s when Puccini’s La Bohème opens the Sydney summer season just four days after the New Year’s Eve Gala performance of the same production. This same routine occurred a year ago when a revival of La Bohème was also given as a New Year’s Eve Gala and then opened the summer season a few days later. Presumably, this makes good commercial sense, even if it is artistically undesirable to open the season with revivals of the same opera two years in succession.
This production by Gale Edwards production premièred in 2011 and has been frequently revived since then. This season’s revival director is Andy Morton who has successfully maintained the atmosphere of previous seasons. The result is a well-oiled performance in which all the singers clearly know how they fit into the overall production concept, although some of the individual dramatic interactions still need more time to settle down.
Edwards sets the production in the German Weimar Republic of the early 1930s which she considers to be analogous to the opera’s original setting of bohemian Paris a century earlier. For the most part, this works acceptably, though there are always incongruities when directors engage in operatic time travel. There are also other peculiarities such as the presence of a senior Nazi figure presiding over the licentious environment of the second act. Brian Thomson’s set designs remain generally effective though the cramped opening of Act 2 only draws attention to the small stage size of the Joan Sutherland theatre.
In this season’s cast, all but one of the principal singers have recently sung in this production and they are therefore very familiar with it. Nicole Car repeats her previous interpretation of Mimì. Her voice is suited to the role: well-focused and expressive, and she is able to scale the musical climaxes. Her dramatic interpretation is hindered, however, by the frequency with which she avoids eye-contact with the other singers, distancing her from the other characters. Even if Edwards is deliberately employing Brecht’s alienation technique (which would fit the production’s new time period), it nevertheless undermines the emotional relationship between Mimì and Rodolfo which is the dramatic cornerstone of the opera. Rodolfo was impressively sung by Ji-Min Park whose ringing upper register and committed acting effectively create the ardent young lover which the role requires.
As Marcello, Giorgio Caoduro is the only singer new to the production and his strong voice, musical phrasing and relaxed stage presence make him a valuable addition to the production’s resident team of singers. The remaining Bohemians, Richard Anderson and Shane Lowrencev repeat their successful renditions from previous seasons. Sharon Prero, fresh from her success as Gutrune in the recent Melbourne Ring cycles, sings well and effectively makes the transition to the more complex character of Musetta.
The Opera Australia Chorus and Children’s Chorus do not play a large part in this opera, but they sang with their customary power and unanimity.
The Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra was conducted by Andrea Licata whose interpretation was a highlight of the performance. What a joy it was to hear such sympathetic and idiomatic Puccini conducting! Licata’s fluid tempi wonderfully underlined the ebb and flow of the drama and his handling of the orchestra’s dynamics ensured that each climax created its maximum effect. Let us continue to hear him often in this repertoire.
Performances of La Bohème continue at the Sydney Opera House until 21 January.
Larry Turner for SoundsLikeSydney©
Larry Turner has been singing in choirs for many years – both in Sydney and London. He is an avid attendee of operas and concerts, with an emphasis on vocal music. He particularly enjoys music from both the great a capella period and the baroque – especially the lesser-known works of Bach and Handel. He has written programme notes for Sydney Philharmonia, the Intervarsity Choral Festival and the Sydneian Bach Choir and is currently part of a team researching the history of Sydney Philharmonia for its forthcoming centenary.