La Bohème by Giacomo Puccini. Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, Opera Australia

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Artist/s: Directed by Andy Morton and conducted by Brian Castles-Onion, with Julia Maria Dan (Mimi), Ho-Yoon Chung (Rodolfo), Julie Lea Goodwin (Musetta), Samuel Dundas (Marcello), Richard Anderson (Colline), Christopher Hillier (Schaunard), John Bolton Wood (Alcindoro/Benoit), Opera Australia Chorus and Opera Australia Orchestra.
Category: Classical, Film, Opera
Label: DVD. ABC Classic 0763068
Reviewed by

“Andy Morton’s directorial debut with the Opera Australia production of this most popular of operas has given us just the right balance of glamorous spectacle (as befits the huge outdoor setting on Sydney Harbour) and intimacy.”

Andy Morton, the director, was involved with the previous five Handa Operas so he was well aware of what was needed to provide an exciting, magical night at the opera for the audience in the magnificent Sydney Harbour setting. Spectacle and glamour, glorious singing and a much-loved opera are necessary ingredients for such productions. It has proved a very effective way of introducing opera to many who may never have seen it previously. The video close-ups of the singers for the DVD means too that they must be excellent actors as well as top quality singers.

La Bohème however is not a work that is, in itself, particularly spectacular or grand – in fact, the setting is largely a small attic in Paris, and the one crowd scene is not showy like that in Aida for example. Certainly no elephants around – maybe just a few stray dogs lurking in the back streets around Café Momus!  And the central love story is an intimate one between a lowly seamstress and a poverty-striken poet – so glamorous costumes are simply not appropriate!  But Andy and his team (Dan Potra – set and costume designer, Marco Devetak – video designer, Tony David Cray – sound designer, Kate Champion – choreographer, and Matthew Marshall – lighting designer) came up with an inspired stage set that was striking, yet suitable.

The Bohemians’ attic is raised up on a platform well above street level, and behind it is a huge angled skylight window through which the audience glimpses the Eiffel Tower and the roofs of Paris. This skylight also becomes a screen onto which are projected images appropriate to the action or reflecting the thoughts of the singers or the canvas of the painter, Marcello. (This was not always a good effect- some of the images detracted from the action). At the end of Act 2, a sudden fireworks display lifts one’s spirits.  This is becoming a tradition with Handa Operas and certainly fitted the moment – it was Christmas Eve in Paris!

John Bolton Wood, Richard Anderson, Christopher Hillier, Ho-Yoon Chung and Samuel Dundas in Opera Australia’s 2018 Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour — La Bohème. Photo: Prudence Upton.

At the stage level one has the streets outside (with the nice touch of a heritage style Parisian lamp post) and all the time the glittering night lights of the city in the background gives the whole a very special ambience (it is Sydney yes, but it could just as well be Paris, city of love!) Shots of beautiful young couples in the audience strolling along the harbour and sipping champagne whilst gazing into each other’s eyes set the mood before the show actually starts. Love is in the air!

Morton and Potra chose 1968 as the time of the action of the opera. This was when the student demonstrations and rioting in Paris left some ugly scenes. So we have burning cars and rubble on the darkened grey wet stage at the start of Act 3 – a reminder that for all their youthful gaiety, life for the poverty-stricken Bohemians was in fact tough and there was a seedy underside to the Latin Quarter where they lived.

And yes HOSH demands splendid singing too, which we certainly enjoy on this DVD. The two imported stars – the Roumanian soprano Julia Maria Dan playing Mimi and the Korean tenor Ho-Yoon Chung playing Rodolfo, are well matched vocally by stars from Opera Australia – Samuel Dundas as Marcello and Julie Lea Goodwin as Musetta. There is no weakness amongst the minor principals either vocally or dramatically – all very well cast.

The Cafe Momus scene

Ms. Dan has a particularly rich and velvety sound, mezzo in quality rather than lyric soprano, which suited her portrayal of a 1960’s Mimi – a far bolder and more seductive woman than the usual shy and modest Mimi as played for example by Mirella Freni in Zeffirelli’s famous 1965 La Scala production. Since operas are multidimensional events they have to locate themselves coherently in the time period chosen by the director, and 1968 in Paris does work well in this production. Instead of a candle Mimi needs a match for her cigarette. In her first entrance striding across the stage in her mini skirt, she looks very confident and anything but shy as she waves to a few street urchins. Rodolfo, played by the Korean tenor, Ho-Yoon Chung, against this Mimi, becomes the more vunerable of the two lovers and this also works. There is no showiness in his style. He has a very expressive voice that is on the lighter side and he is not tall. He totally inhabits the character giving a convincing and moving performance throughout as a sensitive and rather humble poet. His anguish in Act 3 over his inability to care adequately for Mimi is quite gut wrenching. Marcello, played by Samuel Dundas, was also excellent in the role – another totally believable character, tougher and more easy-going than Rodolfo. Julie Lea Goodwin was well cast as Musetta and tossed off the famous waltz song effortlessly.

With a DVD one sees all the nuances of expression and gestures and the four principals interact comfortably and easily under Morton’s direction. One criticism I have is that Mimi never appeared desperately ill in the last act. She looked as fresh as in Act 1 with no outward physical signs of the tuberculosis taking its toll. This jarred in an otherwise very naturalistic portrayal. Her singing improved throughout the opera and was particularly beautiful in the duet with Rodolfo in Act 3. (There was a somewhat fluffed top C at the end of the first act duet but how little this matters when the drama is not disturbed by the odd not quite perfect note in a live performance and leaving it just as it was makes the recording an honest one).  Puccini once wrote “If there is no visceral sympathy with the characters or their plights, there is, as far as many people are concerned, no opera”(p619, The Oxford Handbook of Opera).

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

I found a strong connection to the four principals developed through the opera in this production, moving me to tears. Puccini himself had experienced what it was like to be an impoverished young student when he went to Milan in 1880 to study music for three years. He identified with the world Henry Murgen described in his 1896 autobiography called Scenes de la vie de Bohème on which the story of the opera is based. He is of course the master at touching our hearts with his wonderful melodic inventions – music that reflects the depth and complexity of underlying emotions. He skilfully uses reiterations of motifs to remind us of what went before – e.g. melodies from the happy moments of first love in Act 1 become so poignant when revisited in the last act.

One does not see the orchestra or the conductor Brian Castles-Onion at all on the DVD but the sound they make is excellent, and the ensemble singing was always good – quite difficult to achieve on such a large open stage I would have thought. One is never aware of the performers looking at screens for the conductor’s beat – nothing disturbs the magic of the reality that is created on the stage. The sound engineer (Tony David Cray) has done a fine job achieving such a satisfying balance between the orchestra and singers.

Overall a very satisfying and heart-warming production.

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