La bohème | Opera Australia

La bohème | Opera AustraliaLeft - Antoinette Halloran and Carlo Barricelli. Cover - Opera Australia's La boheme. Photos - Branco Gaica

Opera Australia is employing a new strategy for bridging to new times and audiences with fresh modern productions of operatic standards. During the 2008 spring season the company is repeating two outstanding productions by Puccini standards with young casts:  La bohème in Sydney and Madama Butterfly in Melbourne. La bohème will be broadcast on the ABC2 television channel and to eight regional cinemas nationally on the 29th of October. The beautiful 1990s production of Madama Butterfly by Moffatt Oxenbould and the triumphant performance of Cheryl Barker are probably more known to the Australian audience than Simon Philips’ interpretation of La bohème. Overshadowed by the reputation of Baz Luhrmann and his 1950s setting this production is, however, not to be underestimated. Director Simon Philips’ rendition of La bohème is worthy because the scenography is based on a deep understanding of text sources, libretto, music and the cultural idiom of the Australian urban context. It is the special ability of Simon Philips to capture the essence and structure of the score in visual form that makes this production stand out.

La bohème’s core lies in the melancholic idealisation and representation of the allure of the artistic Parisian milieu of the 1830s. In collaboration with set designer Stephen Curtis, Simon Philips’ rendition shifts the action to today’s artsy urban atmosphere and subculture of Newtown in Sydney or Fitzroy in Melbourne with a set of a two story house furnished in the retro style of the 1970s and a flea market mass scene in Act II. To add to this picture, the male pack’s composition includes a surfer dude with dreadlocks (Colline), a punk musician who does Elvis Presley jobs (Schaunard), a hip hop/urban trady (Marcello) and a more sophisticated university-type writer who types on a laptop (Rodolfo). The Act II flea market displays Australian cultural idiosyncrasies - the ethnic richness of Australian society, a Parpignol selling inflatable beach toys and break dancing, which also cleverly disguises the static chorus at the end. This artistic solution is perhaps reflective of the director’s own longing for youth or is aimed to tap into the sentiment of the majority of the audience who, sadly, were in their 50s, 60s and 70s, while presenting a familiar world to the younger crowds.

In true old operatic fashion the overture of the opera begins while the spectators are entering, albeit here the overture is not musical but visual (Puccini did not write an overture). While the audience are taking their seats, the raised curtain allows for the living organism of the house to unfold uninterrupted: an elderly couple living on the second floor is watching television; the wife is knitting and conversing with the husband from time to time. Two of the main male characters – the inhabitants of the lower apartment - enter and cuddle together on the sofa for a short nap. There is a set of stairs to the right which Mimi uses to go up to her room on the second floor during the initial quartet. The apartment of the male gang is complete with a modest bathroom on the left, where the loo is utilised appropriately. In this way the mixture of deprived conditions and joyous cohabitation are represented through set and costume.

While fulfilling its practical function, the set supports the rich imagery, structure and main emotive surfaces of the music full of tragic charm and comic zest. The four acts progress from the joie de vivre of youth, ideals and camaraderie and the thrills of falling in love in the first act, which are amplified by a mass scene in the second act, to the pragmatic problems of every-day relationships and needs, the existence of poverty and death, desperation and confusion in the third act and finally, loneliness, sorrow, regret for past happiness and human compassion. The set of the production reflects these shifts in mood and, at the same time, the uniformity of the score.

The symmetry between the first and last acts, where Puccini uses the same thematic material, is respectively represented by the same mise-en scène. Beginning with one of the most beautiful musical metaphors of winter, the third act shows the other side of life – deficiency, approaching death, fear, difficult relationships and the parting of Mimi and Rodolfo. This juxtaposition is achieved visually by a view of the rear of the house. The same stairs on the right lead now to trash bins and provide shelter for homeless drunks. The other side of the backyard opens sight to the back rooms of a restaurant, while the exit onto the street is through a large warehouse door.

There are also some fine details in the utilisation of the set. The intimacy of the Mimi and Rodolfo scene in the first act is dramatically justified and achieved when the irritated landlord turns off the electricity. As a consequence, the elderly couple goes to bed, while Mimi comes downstairs to search for light only to meet and fall in love with Rodolfo. The characters discover the sweetness of first touch as the soaring Puccinian phrases take flight together with the ascending set. In the last act, the second floor has been vacated and used as a studio by Marcello. Rodolfo and Marcello express their loneliness in the initial duet. The elderly couple has moved on - a reference to death. Rodolfo points to Mimi’s empty room – a symbol of his feeling of emptiness. The enforced play of the four friends, including an innocent sharing of a drug dose, moves downstairs. The final duet of Mimi and Rodolfo takes place where their love began – in the downstairs apartment. Simon Philips understands that the music is highly descriptive and theatrical and capitalises on it.

The most exquisite visual symbols in the production are the flowers - so central to the main character. During the aria Si mi chimano Mimi in the first act Mimi talks about herself to Rodolfo whilst referring to a flower brooch on her lapel. She pushes a bin before the dreadful “Addio” which announces the beginning of her aria Donde lieta in the third act. The bin falls and opens up to a bunch of dead flowers. The most meaningful flower symbol here however is a blossoming red rose, painted on the louvered windows of the downstairs apartment – maybe a result of Marcello’s artistic attempt to liven up the dullness of the place. In the last act, while Mimi is dying, the male cast take turns to close the opened windows to accommodate the freezing Mimi, thus bringing attention and exposing the full vision of the sign at the end of the opera.

The rose symbol conveys a few levels of meaning. Firstly, it amplifies the physical aspects of the main themes - the eroticism of romantic love and its prickliness, amplified by the fire of the colour red. More importantly, the queen of flowers embodies the beautiful and fragile Mimi. After all, La bohème (feminine singular) is really about Mimi. Further, the flower epitomises life itself in all its magnificent splendour, material fickleness and brittleness. Finally, the rose is an indicator of the permeating mood within the opera – nostalgia.

The common semantic interdependence between scenography and music is backed up by natural and energetic performances by the main cast and by the children and adult choruses under the capable direction of Cathy Dadd. The level of attention to detail and understanding flows into the elements of ensemble and arias acting. The comic and tragic effects were executed with great success and the audience was entertained, moved and satisfied. Body movement, facial expression and subtle gesture were new and realistic in comparison to the stock movement one observes in the acting of many old-school singers. The highest level of believability was achieved in the performances of Antoinette Halloran, Amelia Farrugia and Carlo Barricelli. The beautiful delicateness and innocent playfulness of Mimi could not have been portrayed with better dramatic sensibility by the attractive Antoinette Halloran and her competent and rich lyric soprano. In fact, there has not been a Mimi so refreshingly realistic on the Australian stage and, very soon to be discovered, on the world stage. Amelia Farruggia was sexy, comically mischievous and yet virtuous, while Carlo Barricelli conveyed a strong male charisma vocally and histrionically. José Carbó displayed much potential. His “Placido Domingo” looks, charming smile and volcanic voice will certainly assist his career.

The orchestra never drowned the singers and followed the emotional waves of the music religiously, achieving an effective gradation in the last act, resulting in many a wet eye in the audience. For the connoisseur, all possible nuances of the Puccinian phrase and the declamatory precision of emphasis in the male ensembles suffered. The fresh beautiful voices of the cast would have definitely achieved more if lead by a mature baton. The music and drama would have benefited from more spaciousness of phrasing and silence, while the singers would have felt more secure to push their boundaries. The elasticity of phrasing and dramatic delivery in this opera is governed by how softly orchestra and singer can deliver. Puccini has written many pianos, pianissimos and piano pianissimos in the score for the purpose of portraying the frailty of the human heart through the vulnerability of the human voice in the most difficult singing – messa di voce and mezza voce.  Because of the above deficiencies la musica took a side step in this performance. The two divas would probably fail to attract attention in the media; their healthy life style and modesty undeserving of the mass media shock and sensation drive. Unmistakably, the real prima donna in this case is the production!

Opera Australia presents
La bohème

Performed in Italian with English surtitles

Venue: Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Dates: October 14, 20, 22, 25, 27, 29 @ 7.30pm
Matinee: October 18 @ 1.00pm
Duration: 2 hours and 30 minutes including two 20-minute intervals
Prices: $65 - $246
Bookings: Opera Australia (02) 9318 8200
Sydney Opera House (02) 9250 7777

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