Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Scaled down on a shoestring, Melbourne's BK Opera brings the tragedy home in Puccini's La bohème

Since 2016, BK Opera have been working at grassroots level with emerging artists in bringing opera to audiences in a wide range of performance spaces with no ounce of snobbery attached. Concluding its third full season (the little company presents around three productions each year), Artistic Director Kate Millet has taken on Puccini’s 1896 premiered popular work, La bohème, and swung it into the 1950s with a sharp sense of immediacy. You’re up close and intimate in the cosy ambience of another new venue for this itinerant band and, despite being a little ragged at the edges, it’s a stark reminder that operatic storytelling exists on so many scales.

Belinda Dalton as Mimi, James Penn as Rodolfo and
Jordan Auld as Musetta
Millet’s pared production is sung with passion whilst delivered on a shoestring in its telling of the central tragic love story of the ailing seamstress Mimi and struggling poet Rodolfo. And although it might be stretching things in believing you’re amongst the salons and cafes of 1950s Paris, you certainly get the impression that they and their bohemian friends are just as well dealing with the blows of young love and life as much as young adults amongst us do today.

Belinda Dalton is an excellently cast Mimi and well worth the ticket alone. Dalton’s Mimi is alert, sensitive and carries a deeply felt inner strength that provides thoughtful contrast to her tuberculosis-stricken petite frame. Vocally, Dalton colours and texturises her music attractively with a notable purity of tone and appealing modulation to accompany it, carrying it seamlessly through until the final act’s teary end.

Tenor James Penn, exchanging his usual lead as conductor for lead character, is an ardent, edgy and excitable Rodolfo, Mimi’s sentimental and self-confessed jealous lover. The chemistry Penn shares with Dalton doesn’t always spark and there’s a tendency to force the vocal lines but there are many moments of genuine feeling that waft out on his more subtly produced singing.

Daniel Felton as Schaunard and the cast of BK Opera's La bohème
On the other hand, there are no shortage of sparks between suave baritone Andrew Alesi and radiant soprano Jordan Auld as the hot-headed painter Marcello and flirtatious Musetta respectively, Auld making a particularly alluring example of a woman not to be messed with.

As the philosopher Colline, bass Peter Tregear sings a compellingly solemn sayonara to his dearly loved coat and, as the musician Schaunard, smooth baritone Daniel Felton is a nimble presence without the flamboyance in style you would generally see. And, in a decidedly clever act of casting the bohemian’s landlord Benoit and Musetta’s wealthy old lover Alcindoro as two archetypal opposite females rolled into one part, alto Alicia Groves provides a sweet injection.

Puccini’s masterfully painted shifts of sweeping melody, dramatic rises and abrupt shocks, however, rarely lift off the page. On opening, it didn’t matter how agile and competent around the keyboard Pam Christie was or how conductor Joseph Hie moved the night along, the lack of warmth, richness and resonance in the music was disappointing. The translated titles projected on the back wall weren’t behaving either and disappeared for long lengths of time, although some such things are a minor blot on the stage. Still, it’s opera with a big heart and a welcome part of Melbourne’s scene.

La bohème 
BK Opera
Wesley Anne
250 High Street, Northcote
Until 21st November 2019

Production Photos: Courtesy of BK Opera

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