Several revivals later, since its premiere in 2011, there are more and more aspects to admire in director Gale Edwards’ La bohème for Opera Australia. In its current season at the Sydney Opera House, revival director Liesel Badorrek has done her part well in making a compelling case why the last months of the Weimar Republic in 1930s Berlin prove a fitting adaptation of librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa’s 1840s Paris setting in the city’s Latin Quarter.
|Karah Son as Mimì and Kang Wang as Rodolfo|
Acts 1 and 2 are alive and entertaining before the work really begins to tug with emotional impact in Acts 3 and 4. In Act 1’s voluminous polygonal space, the four bohemians are introduced as individuals struggling with their art and peppy in their interactions before a Christmas Eve encounter between the poet Rodolfo and his neighbour Mimì spawns instant attraction. In Act 2, Cafe Momus is a cabaret theatre of free-spiritedness and decadence where all classes mix. It’s a visual stunner that rotates into place as part of Brian Thomson’s spiegeltent-inspired set design, Julie Lynch’s highly individualistic costumes and John Rayment’s thoughtful lighting.
For this La bohème, Edwards provides the lovers with a poignant and breathing canvas on which aspects of Puccini’s opera tellingly surface. Love blooms on all kinds of backgrounds and love locked in permanency is no guarantee. Mimì and Rodolfo’s new love is on shaky ground and it becomes just as much a struggle to find a way forward as it is to keep a fire burning in winter to keep warm. Edwards reflects that picture in the political atmosphere that seeps into Berlin with Nazism’s presence. Although some of the details could be questioned, it’s a concept that works uncannily well with both storytelling and music, especially in Acts 3’s dark and brooding setting at the city toll gate and leading into Act 4 at the bohemians’ abode where Mimì’s dying moments are shared amongst love and friends.
|Kang Wang as Rodolfo, Michael Lampard as Schaunard, |
Samuel Dundas as Marcello and Richard Anderson as Colline
It certainly helped that South Korean soprano Karah Son, as Mimì, sang with remarkable expressive range and conviction and young Australian Chinese tenor Kang Wang soared high with a handsomely supported sound full of passion as Rodolfo. At this performance two weeks since opening, the pair turned their candlelit introductions into a melting start. Though not the showstopper it can ultimately be, the voices were vibrant and smooth but the best was to come with heart and music beating in impressively nuanced form. Together they made a touching scene when, in Act 3, they agree to stay together until the spring, singing like they lived the experience and maintaining that magic to the end.
Son, who has appeared regularly with Opera Australia in recent years as Puccini’s Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly and Liù in Turandot, sings with both ease and power, her elegant and firm soprano giving Mimì as strong a resolve as possible in the face of ailing physical health. Judging by his Opera Australia debut, Wang, a former Met Opera Lindemann Young Artist, a finalist in the 2017 Cardiff Singer of the World competition, has a big career ahead. Particularly amiable as the self-confessed jealous Rodolfo, Wang’s sense of character and vocal control combined most attractively.
In fact, Rodolfo’s motley mates are all a likeable and bonded lot and Wang’s rapport with them shows great believability, notably with his friend and painter Marcello, an athletically physical and vocally fortified Samuel Dundas. Michael Lampard’s theatrics as a flamboyant Schaunard is a precious sight, singing with polish and flair to match, and Richard Anderson’s broad resonant bass made for a grounded and sympathetic Colline, his Act 4 “coat aria” an affecting, funereal-like march before Mimì’s last breaths.
|The cast of Opera Australia's La bohème, 2020|
The only unpleasant thing was the sexagenarian sitting beside me who first dozed off onto my shoulder, had the stench of far too much alcohol and muttered something or other now and then to his female companion. But his enthusiastic applause did at least sum up the strength of the evening.
Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Until 30th January 2020