La bohème | WA OperaLeft – Rachelle Durkin. Cover – Natalie Aroyan, Garrett Sorenson, Adrian Tamburini, Jose Carbo and James Clayton.

WA Opera caps off its 2013 Season and 'Year of the Divo' with a bright, bold production of Puccini's La bohème. Filled with a stellar lineup of performers and set in a magnificent elevating apartment block, La bohème feels like a grand finale; it's festive, spirited and gorgeous in all the right places.

Director Simon Phillips sets this late 19th century tale in contemporary France, and for the most part, it works. The thematic and contextual material is certainly modern enough, even in the digital age: artists crammed into close grungy quarters, drinking too much, falling in and out of love, struggling to commit, struggling with jealousy, and relishing those struggles.

But what do you do when Mimi calls for a muff? It's written there in the lyrics, so she has to have one. In Phillip's production, the girl gets a muff, no matter if they haven't been in fashion for decades, if not more than a century. And we'd rather live with this small anachronism than see some too-clever exchange for a 21st century substitute. And thank goodness he resisted the urge to give the whole cast mobile phones on stage.

Phillips has teamed up with designer Stephen Curtis, who's got two of Perth's major stages decked out in his design work at the moment – he's designed The Cake Man for Yirra Yaakin at the Studio Underground of the State Theatre Centre – but his design for La bohème is grand and gorgeous. It's multi-tiered, and the realistic apartment building set elevates so that the market scene emerges from underneath. He's chosen to work in a light, bright rainbow palette which keeps the ambiance jovial, although when things get serious, backlighting the large red rose painted on a bank of levered windows at the rear of the set adds suitable drama.

One of the most entertaining features of La bohème is the assembly of characters that inhabit the story. The bohemians are a motley crew and there is ample room for the performers to play with character development and ensemble acting. This cast has the goods to not only sing Puccini's gorgeous melodies, but deliver them with intention, conviction and humour. Garrett Sorenson and Natalie Aroyen sing together with beautiful tenderness as Rodolfo and Mimi; they don't get to goof around as much as the other performers, due to their very serious love affair, but their partnership is the beating heart at the story's center.

The bohemians are made up of the philosopher Colline (Adrian Tamburini), who teases his colleagues with worn-out toeless socks, the musician Schaunard (James Clayton), who is generous and big-hearted, and the painter Marcello (José Carbó), who is a bit of an aloof rocker with the hots for the indomitable Musetta.

Rachelle Durkin an unstoppable force as Musetta, and from the moment she flounces on the scene, she steals it right from under the entire cast and chorus. Her posing and posturing to get Marcello's attention is hilariously desperate and her appalling treatment of the befuddled and bumbling Alcindoro (Andrew Foote) is priceless. Durkin is wholly adept at the art of physical comedy, but she also knows when to pull it back when necessary; her fresh, lively vocals are the icing on a delicious cake.

The chorus and the orchestra are in fine form as well for this very entertaining production, which is sure to have popular appeal. A fantastic finale to 2013 for WA Opera.

West Australian Opera presents
Giacomo Puccini

Original Director Simon Phillips

Venue: His Majesty's Theatre, Perth
Dates: October 29, 31 & November 2, 7, 9, 2013 (Matinee November 5)

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