So my NYE 2012/3 offered me another new experience. Opera Australia’s gala evening. It was a presentation of their new La Boheme which I saw last year and (being well received) has quite a number of performances through the next couple of months in Sydney and then presumably back down to Melbourne. This version has new leads. The performance I saw last year featured Ji Min Park as Rodolfo and Takesha Meshe Kizart: colour-blind casting as it were – an Asian and an African American. From last year’s Melbourne audiences, cast and crew comes this feedback. The praise is laid on thick with comments from the singer playing Mimi (Kizart) and the conductor probably the most interesting.
For New Year’s Eve we had new singers in the lead roles: Nicole Car (Mimi) and Gianluca Terranova (Rodolfo). But before we get to this performance – being a galah event – you will want to know who my date was and what we wore. Here we standing – Augusta Supple and myself – in front of what might be mistaken as an A-lister’s hat. No, just your normal bunch of roses Opera Australia New Year’s Eve style. I suggested Augusta take one home as a memento (clearly I missed a moment in not delivering it to her with the stem between my teeth). We had stuck together through 2012 – every year has its bumpy bits. And as great friends we were very happy seeing in 2013 together, both looking very showered and ironed if you ask me.
The story of the making of Pucchini’s La Boheme, like many works put to music, is long and complicated.The opera premiered in Turin on 1 February 1896. But its origins lie in a group of stories - Scenes de la view de boheme – set in the Quartier Latin of Paris published by Henri Murger roughly 40 years earlier. There were many changes made – subtractions and additions – in turning these loosely connected stories into the coherent plot-line for a good libretto. That said, the Italian librettists, Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, were horrified to find on completion of the work, that the content of the whole third act (of five) of their libretto has been completely put aside by Puccini.
For what is regarded by many as the world’s most popular opera, and so highly regarded artistically, it is odd to discover that the work, in terms of story-telling craft, should be so potentially flawed. Suddenly it’s two years later and a lot has changed for several of the main characters. Or is it? Like Shakespeare, Pucchini understood what works for a crowd. Who has ever noticed there are two times schemes in Antony and Cleopatra intercut – one of over days, the other over months. It may defy logic in a day-to-day sense – but it works artistically.
The figures speak for themselves. La Boheme opened in Turin on 1 Feruary 1896, with more than half a dozen new productions across Italy’s biggest cities in the next two years. By which time it had already been performed in Buenos Aires, Alexandria, Lisbon, Moscow and London. It travelled quickly around the world: Monte Carlo in February 1902 starring Nellie Melba as Mimi and Caruso as Rodolfo. And had already played Melbourne in the Australian winter of 1901.
Here are some design drawings I found of props for the 1897 Berlin production. Cute…
The story begins with a young woman, Mimi, seaching her building for a way to light her candle (metaphor), when she comes across Rodolfo, a poet, working away by himself in what is effectively a roof-top squat. Mimi is a poor seamstress and clearly not in the best of health. The story is as you expect: Mimi and Rodolfo fall in love, suffer and share, until a couple of years later Mimi dies, in Rudolfo’s arms, of something like consumption. For more on the origins of the opera and its history go here.
In Rodolfo’s flatmates – Marcello (painter), Schaunard (musician) and Colline (philosopher) – all the main arts are covered. Stirred into the story is the landlord to whom they owe money; and Musetta, in counterpoint to Mimi, a successful and glamorous star at the local night-club they sometimes attend. Here’s a picture of the nightclub in the New Year’s Eve version.
I couldn’t say the location (in time and space) to Weimar Berlin is a perfect fit. But it is still a production of great invention and effect. Thomson and Lynch both leaped at the visual opportunities this historical setting offered them. I have posted images of Thomson’s set before, here are a couple to jog your memory. The wall panels reverse in a matter of seconds to take us from the dingy apartment (Act I) to the glistening nightclub (Act II).
The lead performances on New Year’s Eve were impressive and Terranova got a stamping applause for his big Act I aria. Car rose to the occasion as the action unfolded, especially in the duets with Terranove, and in other vocal combinations. At odds with logic outside the realm of make-believe theatre , Car was vocally at the most potent in her dying scenes. What I loved about the production best of all was its convincing theatricality. Gale Edwards is well groomed in bringing music theatre alive and her La Boheme overflows with imaginative bloom. She has a good cast and she also knows how to get the best from them. The story-telling was clear and the characterisations (by opera standards) multi-dimensional. At the curtain call you could see the conductor was more than happy with their co-creation (not always the case). Music and theatre well-combined.
Edwards is greatly assisted by her production team. Not only set designer Brian Thomson, but also her costume designer Julie Lynch. As if Musetta is not going to strut her stuff in the night-club in a frock that looks like this (below).
I was going to show you some of Julie Lynch’s costume drawings but I have run out of puff (you likely have too) and we have to stop somewhere. This post is not meant to be an advertisement for Opera Australia. But the pictures in this story suggest the company has come a long way since I first started attending in the early 1980s when more often than not, as the curtain rose, I would shut my eyes and slump down into my seat. And watch most of the show with my ears.