La Bohème Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House Sydney, AUS February 24, 2017
Giacomo Puccini. One of the greatest exponents of operatic realism, id est “verismo”, who is fabled to have uttered that art is a kind of “illness”. One of the symptoms of Puccini’s ailment is La Bohème, an opera in Four Acts, which was first performed at the Teatro Regio in Turin in 1896 and became an instant hit.
La Bohème is one of Puccini’s more refined, mature emissions: Based on Henry Mürger and Theodore Barrière’s novel La Vie de Bohème portraying the life among bohemians of 1840s Paris, it meanders around a moving love story based on Mimi, the female protagonist, ending in a tragic resolution, accompanied and accentuated by an orchestra and its subtle play of thematic reminiscences.
Gale Edward’s lavish incarnation of La Bohème was first performed at the Arts Centre in Melbourne in 2011 and sets the action in 1930s Germany as opposed to the original opera in the Latin Quarter of Paris in the 1830s.
The context of the Weimar Republik, when Germany bounced back from World War I with art and expression flourishing, and specifically Berlin openly celebrating tolerance and sexual freedom, thereby overtaking Paris as the most decadent city in the world in the 1920s and -30s with its extensive liberalism, untamed by censorship, hedonism and libertinism, proves to be a fertile ground for a parallel world where Edwards orchestrates the action in sin city’s Café Momus: The epitome of a cabaret den of exotic iniquity devoid of class distinction, religious creed, sexual preference or any other societal categories that had previously marginalized people.
A bohemian, carefree existence that was contrasted by the poverty and deprivation that was commonplace outside the gates of Berlin, which Edwards shines light on via the main protagonist Mimi downward spiral towards death: The young seamstress (played by Greta Bradman with a nuanceful performance from rapid fire banter in the First Act to hitting tender notes in Act Four) who drifts into homelessness once she is abandoned by her lover Rodolfo (Arthur Espiritu, with his rich tenor voice and an immense range seamlessly transitioning the development from playful, youthful lover to grieving, regretful pallbearer).
Julie Lee Goodwin’s completes the triumvirate with a virtuoso and alluring portrayal of Musetta, navigating from a cabaret number to more melancholic notes in other parts.
Puccini was a cinematic artist and Edward’s La Bohème is a gift to the designers Julie Lynch (costumes) and Brian Thomson (set): The scene at Café Momus is a field day for Thomson, who went to town with an opulent yet realistic glittering set that captures and enhances the depravity of the period, which is further accentuated by the interactions of the troupe in the periphery of the scene and the range of licentious costumes, or lack thereof, on display.
Conductor Pietro Rizzo is able to extract a sumptuous, varied score from the orchestra, which gives squalid moments of loss and jealousy emotionally rich dimensions of tragic grandeur and soars with the ecstasy of love scenes while still allowing room to breathe.
The burning passion of Mimì and Rodolfo is reflected in the glowing sound of the volatile tutti passages in Act One, while the uncertainty around Mimì’s fate in the Final Act is foreboded by the bareness of the high strings, which nonetheless maintains a warm, underlying tone. Rizzo’s strength is that he avoids undue accentuation, which is something one can easily be carried away with when it comes to Puccini.
Gale Edward’s La Bohème is both moving and convincing.
What it lacks in radicalism as compared to other interpretations and adoptions of Puccini’s punchy opera, e.g. the set being places in modern day NYC and Mimi dying of a heroin overdose, it compensates with pathos and affectionism, honouring the broad brushstrokes Puccini painted with.
It is the imagination of Edwards that has tweaked the strengths of Puccini’s opus, and the both inspired and spirited cast that makes his version of the timeless bohemian classic well worth seeing.
Photo by T