Opera review: La Bohème, Opera Australia

While Gale Edward's version of the opera goes out with a spectacular bang, this retiring production will endure in people's minds.
opera singers on stage for La Boheme at Sydney Opera House

When the curtain went up on its opening night this month at Sydney Opera House, Gale Edwards’ production of La Bohème celebrated its 200th performance, and also marked the production’s 12th consecutive season.

In a canny bookend, premiering in 2011, it was the first opera that Artistic Director, Lyndon Terracini commissioned when he started his tenure with Opera Australia, and it will also be a highlight of his final season. It’s a season that turns to hits and faves, rather than new commissions, to cap off a 13-year run of incredible highs and new developments for the company, and walloping lows with COVID repercussions.

A new digitally-fused production of La Bohème was due to kick off this year, but has been pushed forward, largely due to those continued COVID-disruptions (both financially and time-wise). But no one is really complaining. Edwards’ Bohème is luscious to the eye, introduces some fabulous new talent and is easy-lovin’ summer entertainment.

While many have debated the merits and successes (or not) of setting Puccini’s much-loved romantic opera in 1930s Berlin during the last months of the Weimar Republic, Edwards’ piece has endured – and been made signature with Brian Thomson’s jewel-like sets and Julie Lynch’s stunning costumes.

The Act II Café Momus scene will be a timepiece for Australian opera history, with its stacked opera-boxes, luscious velvet curtains and bantering bourgeoisie bathed in red light. It aches for the selfie moment.

Taking us through Edward’s production this summer is revival director Shaun Rennie. Under his eye, South Korean soprano Karah Son (12 January – 8 February) returns as Mimì (she last performed the role in 2020).

Son shares the role with Australian sopranos Danita Weatherstone and Rebecca Gulinello, both debuting in the role, after they recently played Micaëla in Carmen on Cockatoo Island.

It will be a season of debuts, with local talent balanced by the casting of a number of international singers working with the company for the first time. On opening night, Peruvian tenor Iván Ayón Rivas made his Australian debut as Rodolfo, dramatically portraying the lovesick lead. His rapport with both Son and OA favourite, Julie Lea Goodwin, was genuine.

Rivas is no stranger to the role – last year performing it at Teatro Massimo Bellini in Catania, Italy – and it shows; his solos have maintained clarity of tone and warmth.

Also making role debuts with Opera Australia for this revival production of La Bohème are: Brazilian tenor Atalla Ayan as Rodolfo (11 February – 11 March), OA principal Esther Song in the role of Musetta (11 February – 11 March) and OA Young Artist Alexander Sefton as Schaunard (12 January – 8 February). There is also a different conductor at the baton for this revival production, acclaimed Italian maestro Michelangelo Mazza (12 January – 8 February) making his mark and keeping a freshness at play.

Given that, there were relatively few hiccups on opening night, with this cast feeling seasoned and delivering without disappointment.

‘You have to build trust to get artists like these,’ Terracini said in an earlier interview with ArtsHub. ‘You have to surround them with the best people, so that they don’t feel like they are just flying in and carrying the show on their own.’

Julie Lea Goodwin, La Boheme, Sydney Opera House performance
Julie Lea Goodwin as Musetta, Opera Australia’s 2020 production of ‘La Bohème’, Sydney Opera House. Photo: Prudence Upton.

A stalwart for La Bohème, in the role of Musetta, is Julie Lea Goodwin (12 January – 8 February), a sassy siren with a voice to boot. With her blonde bob hairstyle and feisty passion, she brings a maturity to this role that carries the production, with an incredible vocal range, brightness and pathos, particularly in Act IV.

In a welcome return, lyric baritone Haotian Qi again plays Marcello (having debuted in 2022) and brings renewed confidence to the role with a personal flair and dramatic portrayal. He holds his own well in the Act III quartet with Musetta, Rodolfo and Mimi.

Overall, Gail Edwards’ La Bohème is a feast for the eyes matched with the talent we would expect of this opera ‘blockbuster’.

This time last year, the production staggered out of the blur of COVID-cancellations, and faced a deep disappointment at not being able to deliver the New Year’s Eve performance at the House. Don’t miss out again – this will be the last chance to see it before it is retired.

La Bohème
Opera Australia
Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
12 January – 11 March 2023.

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina