Left - Hye Seoung Kwon (Mimi) and Aldo di Toro (Rodolfo). Cover - Jose Carbo (Marcello) and Aldo di Toro. Photos - Branco Gaica
'La bohème will leave only a slight trace in the history of our opera ... the composer would be wise to consider it a momentary mistake and to continue boldly on the right path’. So said the opera critic Carlo Borsezio after the premiere of Puccini’s La bohème on February 1, 1896. History has revealed that he couldn’t have been more wrong.
Sydney 2008 and Puccini’s popular masterpiece is showing yet again at the Sydney Opera House. Director Simon Phillips and designer Stephen Curtis have created a visually pleasing and believable production by setting the opera in modern times and using props that could only belong to the here and now. The cast are young and fit, physically as well as vocally, and portray convincingly the excitement of young love and the Bohemian lifestyle. Prior to the beginning of the performance, the curtain is already up and the stage reveals a cross section of the block of flats where the opera’s protagonists Mimi (Hye Seoung Kwon) and Rodolfo (Aldo di Toro) live. Seeing into their apartments as well as those surrounding them invites the audience to wonder about the lives of the building’s inhabitants and the drama to follow.
It’s Christmas Eve and Rodolfo the writer (Aldo di Toro) and Marcello the painter (Jose Carbo) are trying desperately to warm themselves in Rodolfo’s icy abode. Their friends Colline the philosopher (Richard Anderson) and Schaunard the musician (Warwick Fyfe) soon join the party and a light-hearted and energetic scene ensues. The baritone Jose Carbo is splendid as Marcello and his powerful voice is easily heard above the heavy orchestration of the score. Bass Richard Anderson and baritone Warwick Fyfe also sing extremely well and perform with energy and commitment to create believable characters. Their dreaded landlord Benoit (John Bolton Wood) interrupts the frivolities by demanding the rent and the young men ply him with wine before throwing him out. At this point Marcello, Colline and Schaunard decide to go to Cafe Momus whilst Rodolfo stays behind to finish an article he is writing.
Enter consumptive Mimi, the girl next door who comes in search of a light for her candle. Rodolfo happily obliges and Mimi then exits, but not before dropping her key somewhere in Rodolfo’s apartment. Realizing what has happened, Mimi returns and the couple search for the key, setting the scene for two of the most beautiful arias in opera and an equally beautiful duet. Tenor Aldo di Toro sings the first of these arias, ‘Che gelida manina’ with sincerity and beauty of tone although he appears tentative when changing vocal registers; and whilst his is not a small voice it seems to battle with the orchestra at times in an effort to be heard. Having said that, Aldo di Toro’s top note in this piece rings out splendidly above the orchestra and the audience, rightly impressed, responds with generous applause. Mimi follows with ‘Si, mi chiamano Mimi’ and soprano Hye Seoung Kwon sings with a pleasing tone and engaging stage presence that captures Mimi’s sweet youthfulness. By the end of the two arias and the duet Mimi and Rodolfo are in love (the speed of this is troubling but more a problem of the libretto than the production) and they set off into the night to join the others at Café Momus.
The second act buzzes with light and energy and focuses on the volatile love between Marcello and Musetta and Musetta’s desire to re-ignite her ex lover’s passion. She does this by flaunting herself in front of Marcello and strutting her stuff in sexy knee length black boots whilst singing her famous waltz song ‘Quando men vo’ into a tomato sauce bottle microphone! Amelia Farrugia who has a pretty, light voice, performs this role with her usual competence and in no time has the audience, as well as Marcello, wrapped around her little finger. The chorus provides the background for these shenanigans and captures the hustle and bustle of the market place. A break-dancer dressed in gold suddenly appears out of nowhere and performs an amazing spinning number that brings the second act to an energetic close.
Mimi and Rodolfo decide to separate in act three but change their minds and stay together until the following spring. As in act one, act four begins with youthful horseplay amongst the men but this soon deteriorates into tragedy with the arrival of Musetta and the dying Mimi. Colline decides to pawn his beloved coat in order to buy medicine for Mimi and sings ‘Vecchia zimarra’ in homage to it. Richard Anderson’s beautiful bass voice and sensitive singing of this aria are a highlight of the act. Hye Seoung Kwon’s portrayal of the rapidly fading Mimi is touching and although her voice has a little too much vibrato for my taste, it doesn’t detract from the sensitivity of the performance. Rodolfo’s plaintive cries of ‘Mimi, Mimi’ when his lover dies are heart-breaking and result in more than a tear or two amongst the audience.
La bohème is a beautiful opera and this production has done a good job at capturing the romance and nostalgia of Puccini’s masterpiece. Not all of the singing is great, but much of it is very good and the visually pleasing cast perform with passion and commitment. The result is a journey to a world of love and loss and sumptuous music that will stay with you long after the curtain has come down.
Performed in Italian with English surtitles
Venue: Opera Theatre | Sydney Opera House
Evenings: January 4, 8, 11, 16, 19, 23, 25, 30; February 4, 6, 9, 14, 16, 21; March 5, 14, 20 @ 7.30pm
Matinee: February 23; March 1 at 1.00pm
Free Opera Talks: February 4, 9; March 1 – 45 minutes before performances
Tickets: $65 - $246
Duration: 2 hours and 30 minutes including two 20-minute intervals
Bookings: Opera Australia Ticket Services on (02) 9318 8200 or www.opera-australia.org.au, Sydney Opera House Box Office on (02) 9250 7777 and Ticketmaster 1300 136 166