La Bohème: Puccini’s masterpiece of love and loss transfers superbly to Sydney Harbour – reviewed by Victor Grynberg.

March 26, 2018 by Victor Grynberg
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This is the sixth opera  since Opera Australia commenced their Operas on the Harbour in 2012 with Carmen repeated last year.

 

Chorus and ensemble in Opera Australia’s 2018 Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour — La Bohème.
Photo credit: Prudence Upton

Thanks to the generosity of major sponsor Dr. Haruhisa Handa and his IFAC, an enviable reputation has grown for these productions. Starting with La Traviata, we’ve all enjoyed also Carmen, Aida, Madama Butterfly and Nabucco. So the question on everyone’s lips was ”Will this be as great as the others?”

Victor Grynberg

And in this writer’s case, having written to OA last year urging them to produce La Boheme on the harbour, would one of his very most favourite operas with arguably Puccini’s most romantic score be transferred successfully?

Fortunately the answer is a resounding yes.

It’s no longer the freezing garrets of Paris in the 1890s. it’s the freezing apartment with a view of La Tour Eiffel,  of the artistic friends, Rodolfo the Poet, Marcello the Painter , Colline the Philosopher and Schaunard the Musician in a strife torn Paris of the revolutionary youth year , 1968. Clever use of projection throughout the production enhances this very well designed and flexible set which  serves the purposes of the freezing apartment in Act 1, the Quartier Latin and  Café Momus scenes in Act 11, the overturned and still flaming vehicles after the student riots, and the house of ill-repute in Act 111, and finally in Act 1V, where the drama returns to the apartment and  poor seamstress Mimi finally succumbs to her illness.

Along the inevitable journey is the famous opening scene where Rodolfo burns the manuscript of his newest play to stay warm. No problem nowadays to have copies but what a tragedy then. The friends leave Rodolfo alone and then the love affair starts, innocently at first, between him and neighbour Mimi.

Ho-Yoon Chung and Iulia Maria Dan in Opera Australia’s 2018 Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour — La Bohème.
Photo credit: Prudence Upton

Puccini endowed this particular part of the opera with his most glorious music, finishing the act with the magnificent duet “O Soave Fanciulla” sung superbly by principles Korean Ho-Yoon Chung, continuing his excellent season with OA and Romanian Soprano Julia Maria Dan, making a wonderful debut for OA. How marvellous that in today’s operatic world we have stars who sing divinely, fully look the part and act to the highest standard of a stage drama.

As usual the sound engineers (under the guidance of Tony David Cray ) have done an outstanding job and though fully miked ,the balance between the singers and the ever-perfect Opera Australia Orchestra, under enthusiastic regular Conductor Brian Castles-Onion is just right and there is no loss of quality for Puccini’s score, just because it’s the great outdoors and not a confined theatre.

Director Andy Morton and Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini have clearly combined  very well to maximise the use of the talented local performers and to update the setting to increase relevance for the much-wider background audience who attend the harbour productions .Julie Lee Goodwin , a young veteran for OA delivers a perfect Musetta. The hit aria “Musetta’s Waltz” is sung to perfection and along the way she performs her role so well you can really feel her emotions. . As Rodolfo’s colleagues Samuel Dundas (Marcello) Richard Anderson (Colline ) and Christopher Hillier (wearing a bright orange wig as Schaunard and almost looking like a twin of Conductor Brian Castles-Onion ) are all exemplary.

Diminutive John Bolton Wood as the hapless landlord Benoit, and the ageing Viscount is his usual reliable excellence.

Morton has a keen eye for the opportunities and challenges this huge set presents him. Even in steamy Sydney we get the Parisian snow, very effective backdrop, our usual fireworks and great use of the stage by the townspeople, the kids and never forgetting the dog.

Giacomo Puccini

Designer Dan Potra may well have had huge resources to dress and construct what he did, but resources won’t help if the designer has no taste. Potra has it by the gallon, as obviously does lighting designer Matthew Marshall.

In the poignant death scene in Act IV, all the tragedy is played out with great singing and grand emotion. A sad but perfectly rendered ending.

The enthusiastic audience showed their appreciation with rousing applause for the stars, the chorus, the army of technical wizards and the talented musicians who all came on stage for their rightful acknowledgement  . It had taken a huge effort by hundreds to put this production on, and OA should be very proud of the resulting triumph.

I’ve seen outdoor operatic presentations in Verona, Caracalla on Rome and several other places around the world. None of them have ever come close to Sydney in terms of imagination, presentation , lighting and sound. OA take a big bow.

This perhaps  greatest Puccini opera has been performed with full respect and quality to the  magnificent score, yet told in a way that is really magical, with the Harbour, the Opera House and Luna Park so effective in the background. Handa Opera by the Harbour, is not a gimmick, nor a travesty  of grand opera . Rather it shows how wide the appeal of a grand opera can be and that four walls aren’t a physical requirement. Buy a $5 poncho if necessary, but don’t miss this superb spectacle.

5 Stars

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