Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Wintery Paris settles enchantingly on Sydney Harbour for Handa and Opera Australia's La bohème

La bohème on Sydney Harbour, Act 3 scene
With bright ideas, solid voices and drama sewn with pathos that doesn’t let a bag of spectacular effects overwhelm it, the outdoor experience of Opera Australia’s La bohème makes for a memorable and enchanting night out on Sydney Harbour.  Generously backed by Dr Haruhisa Handa and his International Foundation for Arts and Culture - with the NSW government well onboard an annual event that has lured more than 300,000 attendees over its now seventh season - the stakes are high to deliver a thrilling night that ticks umpteen boxes for a broad cross-sectional audience. It would seem that the magic formula has well and truly proven itself.

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
For Act 2, the garret is transformed into Cafe Momus with an array of little tables. It’s a quaint setting but the main action is played out clumsily behind an incongruous trestle table on the street below. Then, in Act 3, the garret becomes a series of windowed cubicles advertising the women within, as the brothel "La Maison Délice", a well-resolved setting that depicts the seediness of life at the edge and a perfect frame for Mimì and Rodolfo’s unsettled love and the standoff between Marcello and on-off girlfriend Musetta. And, of course, with the 1960s comes a vibrant and balanced display of costumes - short coats, fur collars and high boots.

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
In Act 1’s burst of momentum we meet Rodolfo, a poet, and his friends Marcello the painter (Christopher Tonkin, alternating with Samuel Dundas), Colline the philosopher (Richard Anderson) and Schaunard the musician (Christopher Hillier). Across the raised bohemians’ garret, it wasn't easy grabbing onto the intricacy of what’s being sung and you sometimes feel left behind but the moment Mimì knocked at the door after Rodolfo’s friends have left, she a stranger asking for a light to her candle, the space was given room to breath marvellously. Once the hands meet, across the couch, O’Neill began with a heartfelt "Che gelida manina" ("What a cold little hand") that exposed a deep furnace of energy which he transformed ardently into smooth, diction-clear phrasing and assured height in the voice. With confident playfulness, Kovalevska followed up beautifully with "Sì, mi chiamano Mimì' ("Yes, they call me Mimì"), the voice airy, bright and blooming on a woman she gave touching complexity to. Their performances felt genuine, unforced and, right to the tragic end, they appeared to give it their all. The intimacy of such moments clearly kept the drama well on top of the spectacle but there were times when more thoughtful stage blocking would have allowed the audience to work out where a soloist is singing from amongst a large ensemble. 

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

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