Just as Scott Morrison was bringing down the 2016 Federal Budget with the latest news of Arts funding, the State Theatre curtain was being raised on Puccini’s La Bohème, the quintessential opera about artists starving in a garret. Fortunately, Opera Australia has not suffered the slash and burn inflicted on other fields of endeavor and opera lovers can continue to enjoy the talents of local and international singers at the top of their game in this Melbourne Autumn season.
Two of the biggest draw cards for this remounting of La Bohème are Armenian soprano Lianna Haroutounian (pictured) and tenor Gianluca Terranova. Haroutounian has attracted rave reviews for her recent performances at major houses such as the Metropolitan Opera and the Royal Opera and it was soon plain to see why. When she soared to her first high note in the opening act, the Wow! factor was enough to make the most reluctant opera goers sit up and pay attention, convinced that they had got their money’s worth. Smooth, generous and glowing at the top of the range, clear and attractive in the middle and with enough weight to give the dark passion of “grande come il mare… profunda” its oceanic depth in Mimì’s final aria, her spectacular voice alone merits full houses. The enthusiastic applause and bravos at the end of her first aria came as no surprise.
Although possessing less power at the top, Terranova’s voice was generally an appropriate match. Firm, secure and pleasing, the role of romantic flat-broke poet appeared to present no vocal difficulties. What needed further development, at least initially, was the rapport between the two principals. Given the passion-charged combination of Takesha Meshé Kizart and Ji-Min Park in 2011, this can hardly be sheeted to Gale Edward’s production. A tendency for the singers to sing to the audience rather than each other, especially for Haroutounian’s first aria, did appear to be in part a stylistic device, but risked detracting from the emotional interplay. Terranova already had several performances of this production under his belt and convincing interaction with his fellow bohemians suggested that lack of stage rehearsal time with a new Mimì might have been a crucial factor.
This might also have accounted for some uneasy moments when orchestra and singers were at odds with each other in regard to tempi. By the final act everything seemed to have settled considerably. Conductor Andrea Molini elicited some extremely beautiful playing from Orchestra Victoria, particularly in the orchestral passages, Richard Anderson was spot on as Colline in a rich voiced “Coat Aria” and Haroutounian was very moving indeed as a dying Mimì. In addition to Terranova’s emotional involvement in this scene, the Shane Lowrencev as an engaging Schaunard intensified the pathos by giving almost as much loving attention to Mimì as did Rodolfo.
Opera Australia has had a succession of outstanding Musettas for this production and Jane Ede follows Taryn Fiebig and Lorina Gore as a soprano with an admirable range of acting and vocal skill. Whether as outrageous flirt, reveler in fiery sexual jousting or empathetic friend, Ede was an appropriately strong and vivid presence. As her lover, the painter Marcello, Andrew Jones gave another strong performance.
In viewing a remounted production after a gap of five years, different aspects came to my attention. For instance, the concept of the Spiegeltent took on new resonance. When the curtain rises, the audience is not transported to a nineteenth century Parisian garret but to an early 1930s venue in Berlin. A stronger perception of the area becoming the setting of a show within a show made more sense of the spaciousness of the garret with Marcello’s Parting of the Red Sea painted on walls that could hardly be torn down to provide warmth from the little stove. As the walls morphed into the scarlet and gold extravagance of the Café Momus scene it was not such a shock to see children rush about a decadent cabaret. We had entered an even higher level of the hyper reality and irrationality that is opera. It is the kind of reality where singers, including a group of children, can park themselves along the front of the stage to sing to the audience.
There was, however, some conflict between the words being sung and the action on stage, which could grate somewhat. It is also difficult to account for the odd mismatch between libretto and surtitle translation such as when Mimì is called a florist after explaining to Rodolfo that she embroiders flowers, which, “ahimè, non hanno odore” (alas, have no perfume).
With a backdrop depicting an impressively completed Parting of the Red Sea, this image reached its metaphoric climax for the curtain calls as the chorus divided to allow the soloists to make their triumphant entrance from the central door at the back of the stage and take their bows.
Gale Edward’s imaginative direction, underpinned by Brian Thomson’s striking set design and Julie Lynch’s effective costumes, make this production well worth a return visit. The chorus was in fine form and all soloists performed with conviction.
Lianna Haroutounian and Gianluca Terranova are not to be missed.
Heather Leviston attended Opening Night of La Boheme on May 3 at the Melbourne Arts Centre State Theatre.