Left – Phillip Calcagno, Steven Gallop, Roger Howell, Nathan Lay and Roy Best. Cover – Lee Abrahmsen and Roy Best. Photos – by Robin Halls.
Melbourne Opera celebrates it's tenth anniversary with Puccini's famous and well-loved opera, La bohéme. Housed within the decadent Athenaeum Theatre, and previously performed in 2007 to packed houses, the vibrant and devastating tale is a treasure for seasoned viewers and newcomers alike.
Based on Henri Murger's novel, 'Scenes de la vie boheme', the opera is an engrossing celebration of life, particularly focused upon the artisan Parisian lifestyle. Broken into four acts the plot follows four friends, with particular focus upon Rodolfo (played in this reviewer's viewing by alternate cast member Matthew Thomas) and Rodolfo (alternate Paul Biencourt), a poet and painter respectively. Their embroilment in love affairs is what makes up the body of the show, Rodolfo with his charming neighbour and sickly seamstress Mimi (alternate Danielle Calder) and Marcello with vixen Musetta (alternate Angela Horan). The ensemble work well together, paying careful attention to their respective characters idiosyncrasies and attitudes. At times though, blocking feels clumsy despite good intentions. While director Hugh Halliday (Director of Productions, Melbourne Opera, 2006 - onwards) has clearly sought to engage the audience, the focus is occasionally lost with audiences unsure of where their attention should be, or a key character is cut off, despite still singing. This is particularly noticeable during Act Two's chaotic market scenes. In other acts, movement is more precise and a lack of cluttering means that seeking clarification of what is going on, or who is the pivotal focus, is unnecessary.The space must be taken into consideration; with an opera that bursts with as much colour as La bohéme does, a small arena makes permitting that spirit to burst through difficult.
Visually the apartment set may be commended, creating a sense of the poverty encountered. The fourth act breaks up the division of the brick wall, allowing a faux starry night to shine through in an element of beauty that is so at odds with the deathly ill Mimi. The third act's depiction of a winter courtyard is also viscerally beautiful, the cool lighting setting up the mood alongside the ever-falling snow. It is these 'emptier' scenes that are particularly poignant in comparison to the overpacked stage at other moments, for it must be remembered that in the end, Puccini's opera is a simple tale following only so many people. Yet slow set changes have the audience restless regardless and the uncomfortable drawn out silences are not beneficial to concentration. Conductor Greg Hocking's orchestra, while beautiful, also overwhelms the vocal performance of the cast members, rather than underscoring them – and the strain of the unmiked cast members is noticeable.
In a move that proves formidable with first-time opera goers, Halliday has also made the executive decision to have his singers perform in English. While potentially risky in it's capacity to irritate traditionalists, the format provides a clear and modern understanding of Puccini's plot. While the cast demonstrate considerable skill at key moments – Biencourt is riveting in Rodolfo's more powerful, heart-strung solos and Calder's pure voice is a gem that constantly shines through - they struggle at other points. Despite tradition ensuring a lack of miking, this combined with the transition to English means that in areas such as the dress circle, it is sometimes difficult to understand hear the words.
Careful observation of character makes up for where the voices may let down. Horan is stunning in scarlet as Marcello's past lover and temptress. She relishes the role and each physically comic moment she's allowed, she milks. In sharp contrast to her brevity, the graveness of her persona in the last few grim moments is worth noting. It's a quick progression from saucy to serious, but the removal of the facade is a cleverly executed one. Biencourt as Rodolfo plays the young and idealistic poet for every penny it's worth, understanding the weight the lead male carries. Charming and boisterous at the necessary times, and worn out and beaten down as a young poet and lover at others, it's his rich voice that truly wrings the heartstrings of the audience. Beside him, Calder is the picture of purity. Cleverly outfitted in flowing dresses of cream, Calder conveys a certain vulnerability in her depiction of Mimi's lone woman strength. Her quiet ghosting around during Rodolfo's revelation of the real reason he left her is heartbreaking. Her voice must be paid it's dues – it soars and shimmers above all else. Holding them altogether is Thomas in the role of Marcello. Viewed by some as the storyteller, Thomas is equal parts stoic and a fatherly hand to his misguided and tormented friends and emotional as both lover and spurned lover. His charm works a spell over his viewers – the unusual outfitting of orange jacket, checked pants and striped scarf only assists. Thomas' physicality is precise and controlled, lending him greater authority as a performer and as a significant confidante figure for fellow characters. He and Horan work particularly well together as a world-worn dynamic that too many will be familiar with. Alternate Schaunard, Kristian Gregory and regular cast member Steven Gallop as Colline also provide both the comic relief and thought that is necessary, working together well. Other ensemble moments prove tricky, but the two soldier through, their dynamic remaining comprehensible.
It is undeniable that La bohéme is not without a fault. There are areas that must be tightened for future performances, and previous viewers of the 2007 season will certainly hold certain expectations. There remains great potential in the performance, and throughout the night performances and staging slowly tightened. For old fans and newcomers alike, the performance is pleasing and certainly worth a viewing with an open and curious mind.
Melbourne Opera presents
by Giacomo Puccini
Directed by Hugh Halliday
Venue: Athenaeum Theatre, 188 Collins Street, Melbourne
Dates: Saturday March 3 – 18, 2012
Bookings: www.melbourneopera.com | Ticketek.com.au | 9650 1500
Venue: Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University
Date: Saturday March 31 - 8.00 pm
Bookings: www.monash.edu/mapa | (03) 9905 1111