La boheme

Patricia Maunder

OPERA AUSTRALIA: This Gale Edwards production sets the action of Puccini’s well known and much loved opera in Berlin in the 1920s.
La boheme
How to do something fresh with one of the most well-known operas around? This new Opera Australia production of Puccini’s La boheme largely succeeds, but more importantly they have a cast capable of delivering the dramatic and musical magic necessary to draw out this gorgeous bit of melodrama’s soul.

One of the most concise operas in the repertoire (perhaps one reason why it’s among the most popular), La boheme explores the poor but creative bohemian lifestyle, in which love and art is not necessarily enough – not just for comfort, but to live. The poet Rodolfo (South Korea’s Ji-Min Park) falls for the seamstress Mimi (American Takesha Meshe Kizart), while his painter friend Marcello (Andrew Jones) has an on-off relationship with the beautiful Musetta (Taryn Fiebig), who is tempted away by wealthy suitors. As disagreements mask their mutual devotion, the increasingly ill Mimi must leave penniless Rodolfo, but her fate is already sealed.

Traditionally set in Paris several decades before its 1896 premiere, this Gale Edwards production of La boheme moves the action forward a century, around the late 1920s or early 1930s. It’s only in the third act, however, that it’s apparent we’ve not been observing the bohemia of Paris but Berlin – and even this is somewhat murky. A pity, as the sense of desperation and transgression, in opposition to increasingly oppressive political forces in Germany at the time, would have had greater impact if made clear at the outset.

Act Three delivers further confusion by suggesting the bohemians live in a gloomy government checkpoint. Another incongruity is Marcello painting an enormous mural on the walls of the bohemians’ original digs when there’s no money for the rent, let alone food.

Otherwise this production’s design elements work well, contrasting poverty’s bare, open spaces of muted colours with the frantic, shimmering decadence of Cafe Momus, and simple costumes with the splendour that comes with money. Fiebig’s Act Two outfit is particularly stunning, and is a key element in the dramatic staging of Musetta’s aria ‘Quando me’n vo’: spotlit before a vintage microphone, she’s like a sultry nightclub performer of old.

Fiebig is excellent in the role, all fire and ice as she’s torn between love and wealth, her clear, controlled voice rising to the occasion of that big aria to display great intensity and beautiful tone. Kizart, a hit last year in Sydney as Tosca, made an impressive Melbourne debut, somehow managing to carry off the role of shy, frail little Mimi while simultaneously revealing herself as a vocal and dramatic powerhouse. There is an effortless force and radiance to her singing, but there’s also the nuance of emotional depth and surprisingly low tones.

Many a leading man would be blown away by such a diva on the rise, but Park was a compelling Rodolfo, his wonderfully warm, confident tenor supported by a dramatic performance that adeptly rode his character’s emotional rollercoaster. The rest of the cast was solid, particularly Jones in completing the central quartet. Orchestra Victoria, under the baton of Christian Badea, elegantly expressed the lush romantic score, though occasionally with such vigour that the singers were drowned out – only the mighty Kizart was able to completely defy them.

La boheme
Conductor: Christian Badea
Director: Gale Edwards
Set designer: Brian Thomson
Costume designer: Julie Lynch
Lighting designer: John Rayment
Principal cast: Ji-Min Park, Takesha Meshe Kizart, Andrew Jones, Taryn Fiebig

State Theatre, The Arts Centre, Melbourne
April 12 – May 13

Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House
July 12 – October 24

Opera Australia

About the author

Patricia Maunder is a Melbourne writer.