|La bohème on Sydney Harbour, Act 3 scene|
It’s an immense and superbly-organised affair that shares the art form with a mix of passion and unapologetic splendour and one that warmly connects first-timers and returnees alike. And if money’s to be made, we’ll see it trickle with the spirit of generosity through all levels of the art form. Correct?
At the core of La bohème is passionate new love, hope against the odds and the unquestioning generosity of heart amongst friends. In Andy Morton’s first time in the director’s chair - after assisting on five previous harbour spectaculars - the work gleams with overall integrity, fortunately capturing the intimacy and strain between the leading lovers when and where it demands. In this case, it’s the 1960s. Morton updates Puccini’s four-tableaux acts set in Paris’ 1830s Latin Quarter to more than a century later in the same district during the turbulence of the student riots, specifically, 1968.
The association doesn’t really fire up until Act 3 when a debris-strewn street, an upturned vehicle burns to one side and police presence describe the sombre mood. But Dan Potra’s set and costume designs, nevertheless, create an evocative wide-angled picture from start to finish for the central storytelling in front of the long length of harbour-side seating stands for the audience facing it.
The bohemians’ raised and over-sized garret, on which either side tall chimney stacks blow off smoke, is the centrepiece of Potra’s work. A broad sloping cobblestoned street lit by lantern streetlights wraps around it. High above, a large angled skylight becomes a screen for a variety of projections by video designer Marco Devetak, acting both as a window to sensational views of Paris, including its iconic Eiffel Tower, as well as a canvas for lots of novel animations and graphics. Altogether, not forgetting Matthew Marshall’s magnificent ambient lighting design, it’s an impressive construction that provides multiple entry points for the comings and goings and one in which interior and exterior action is integrated cleverly though, at times, busily.
|Julie Lea Goodwin as Musetta and John Bolton Wood as Alcindoro|
In Act 2’s opening bustling street scene, for which the Opera Australia Chorus add so much vitality in voice and movement, acrobats, stilt-walkers and a hula hoop performer enter the mix and Parpignol (Simon Gilkes) descends in a giant pot carried by a bunch of balloons (inconspicuously transported by crane). And when it snows on a balmy Sydney evening, it feels completely natural. The fireworks not so but they’ve become such a part of the event that the complaints would be rampant should they be dropped. On Easter Sunday night, at the end of Act 2, they fizzled rather quickly.
The singing, on the other hand, made a lasting impact and owes a great deal of thanks to the strength and clarity of Tony David Cray’s sound design. So too for the unseen Opera Australia Orchestra under the fine leadership of conductor Brian Castles-Onion who brought notable sensitivity to the music and attentive support for the singers. Certainly not an easy task hidden out of sight but the timing of singers and under-stage orchestra remained remarkably on track.
Latvian soprano Maija Kovalevska, with her engaging and nuanced portrayal of Mimì, and Australian tenor Paul O’Neill, as a sensitively drawn Rodolfo, made a thoroughly convincing picture of love wrought by the reality of personality and circumstance (the pair alternate over the four-week season with Romanian Iulia Maria Dan and South Korean Ho-Yoon Chung who opened the season on 23rd March).*
|Christopher Hillier and Richard Anderson|
There was no reason for Julie Lea Goodwin to stand too far aside from the limelight. Her feisty but sympathetic Musetta was a stunner and sung with persuasive starry gusto. Christopher Tonkin’s Marcello was a perfectly bold match for Goodwin’s Musetta, rich, muscular and resonant in voice at his best, though without consistent amplified smoothness. Christopher Hillier, in a handsome pink suit with flared-trousers, added quality of voice and groove as Schaunard and John Bolton Wood brought years of experience and character to twin roles - Benoît the crusty landlord and Musetta’s sugar daddy, Alcindoro, smartly reinterpreted as the Chief of Police. And as a big-hearted bearded Colline, broad bass Richard Anderson’s farewell aria to his coat, "Vecchia zimarra" ("Old coat") is a highlight, an aria that Puccini seems to have ingeniously written with the immense solemnity that marches towards the impending shock of Mimì’s passing.
If shedding a tear is any indication, you could say the heart of the story cut through effectively. A little tweaking here and there would add to the clarity along the way but the quality on stage and the huge collaborative artistry that makes up the spectacle are to be praised, as is Morton’s first-time directorship of the event. Many who come to Sydney will be wondering and waiting for what’s next.
* Production photos unavailable for secondary cast
La bohème on Sydney Harbour
Handa and Opera Australia
Mrs Macquarie’s Chair,
Until 22nd April, 2018
Production Photos: Prudence Upton