La Bohème returned to Melbourne this week in a new production by Opera Australia under the direction of Gale Edwards.
While perhaps not as ‘over the top’ as the previous production by Baz Luhrman, it did have some Luhrman echoes. Overall this was an excellent production of an audience favorite which has stood the test of time.
Gale Edwards has decided to move the location and time from 1850s Paris to Berlin in the 1920s – a time of unbridled hedonism. This may have appeared like a good idea, but there didn’t seem to be much point other than to turn the Cafe Moma into a Berlin Cabaret, or maybe I missed the point.
La Bohème is a Romantic love story, with no discernible overarching symbolic theme, other than, perhaps, the importance of art in a community. As one of the librettists, Luigi Illica famously remarked: “So: we now have a meeting in an attic between a seamstress and a journalist. They love each other, they quarrel, she dies.” And that’s essentially it, except, of course for the music.
Latvian soprano Maija Kovalevska and South Korean tenor Yosep Kan are perfectly suited to the title roles of Mimi and Rodolfo. Mimi is the young seamstress, suffering from tuberculosis, who first meets the writer Rodolfo when she knocks on the door of his freezing garret. They are instantly smitten, and so begins a blooming romance.
Sharing the stage is a fine ensemble cast consisting, in the first instance, of Marcello (Christopher Tonkin), Colline (Richard Anderson) and Schaunard (Christopher Hillier). These four are the impoverished Bohemians sharing the freezing attic, bravely trying to outwit their landlord Benoit, (Graeme Macfarlane)
At the end of Act 1, Mimi and Rodolfo are alone in the attic. In Opera the libretto is often trite but occasionally there are profound words. It is the Libretto which sums up the play’s thesis when Rodolfo responds to Mimi’s question about who he is.
Who am I? I am a poet.
My business? Writing.
How do I live? I live.
In my happy poverty
I squander like a prince
my poems and songs of love.
In hopes and dreams
I’m a millionaire in spirit.
What follows is one of Opera’s great love duets, here beautifully delivered in terms of the singing. One quibble, however, from what was a fine production: traditionally this duet which ends Act 1 concludes with the singers off-stage. Here the two remain in sight, and I don’t think this worked.
Act 2 removes the action to the Café Momus, the Bohemians’ favorite haunt, and here set designer Brian Thomson and Director Edwards make their statement in dramatic fashion. What we now see is a lavish Berlin cabaret with the OA chorus in full flight.
It’s a tribute to the director that she is able to keep this act under control, so much is happening at once. It also introduces us to Musetta (Jane Ede), in full Marlene Dietrich mode. Ede, in this role, and in this scene, is exceptional as the seductive, outrageously audacious star of such a Berlin cabaret.
This scene also introduces us to the remaining ensemble, comprising Alcindoro (Adrian Tamburini) and Parpignol (Benjamin Rasheed),
The production values of Act 2 on their own are worth the price of admission.
The remaining storyline leads us to the inevitable conclusion and the death of Mimi. What impressed in the final scene was fine acting of the Bohemians Colline, Schaunard and Benoit. Their awkwardness and helplessness in the face of tragedy was memorable.
A special mention is warranted of baritone Christopher Hillier’s fine rendition of the lament which sums up the final tragedy.
Reviewer Cyril Jones attended Opera Australia’s La Bohème at the State Theatre on 7 Nov 2018.