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La Boheme

Opera Australia production at the refurbished Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Opera House.

Chris Tham Chris Tham Saturday, 14 January 2023 at 11:00:00 pm AEDT 4 min read

Our friend Patricia had 2 tickets to La Boheme and since it is our favourite opera, we decided to go.

Getting there turned out to be quite eventful. We were going to catch the train, but were extremely late, so in a fit of madness jumped into the car. My parking angel was working overtime, because all the lights were green and we had a clear run to the opera house from Chatswood in 15 minutes (without even speeding)! Plus managed to not only find parking 15 minutes before the opera commenced, but somehow managed to get free parking. Thank you my angel - much appreciated.

La Boheme is of course my favourite opera, and we have experienced multiple productions over the last 40 years, and I own at least half a dozen recordings including the well known ones like the Decca 1959 Serafin version with Renata Tebaldi, the Karajan 1970s recording with Pavarotti/Freni and various others including the Beecham and the one featuring Andrea Bocelli.

Here’s a mini review. I also rewatched the Handa production from 2019, which is still available on ABC iView.

First of all, the positives. The opera is staged in the newly refurbished Joan Sutherland Theatre (formerly the Concert Hall) at the Sydney Opera House. The acoustics are vastly improved using acoustic treatments on the walls and ceilings (the previous Concert Hall was notorious for muddy, boomy sound due to the unique architecture).

The sets are quite impressive, and quite true to the original setting of the opera (Paris in the 1830s). Definitely better than the rather spartan nature of Baz Luhrmann’s famous production in the 1990s, but less big budget and showy compared to the Handa production. All in all I thought they have captured the pre-Haussman Paris (that we all know today) and gave us a reasonable facsimile of Paris during the July Monarchy undergoing industrialisation. The sets referenced the rapid expansion of the outskirts of Paris and the re-fortification of the military wall quite well (Act 3), and Act 2 has a good recreation of the interior of Cafe Momus, although I thought the intrusion of Parpignol into the scene was not well handled. Act 1 and 4, meant to represent the interior of the bohemian’s garret, are functional but a bit threadbare. I particularly liked the completed version of Marcello’s Red Sea in Act IV which very few productions try to include. Incidentally I am super impressed by the Handa production inclusion of the furniture removal scene at the beginning of Act 4, which references the “missing act” discovered in 1957 (sorry, but I am a nerd and I like oblique references).

Now, onto the singing and acting. I felt Act 1 was handled reasonably well, but a bit flat. Act 2 had a lot of energy and I think the performers rather enjoyed this act.

Acts 3 and 4 are where I feel the performance becomes disappointing. Puccini does an incredible balancing act between comedy and pathos and I think ultimately this is not handled well. Act 3 is meant to be an almost continuous tearjerker, but I didn’t cry. The contrast between Rodolfo/Mimi and Marcello/Musetta in the quartet was reasonably well handled (and I particularly liked that Musetta and Marcello made up in the end) but the pacing is wrong and I am not wallowing in the poignancy of Roldolfo and Mimi’s pre emptive farewell.

Act 4 is where I am most disappointed. It is missing the first few lines of the libretto. The orchestral preludes segues into Rodolfo and Marcello reminiscing about their ex lovers, and skips the introductory remarks. I don’t understand why these lines were skipped. The horseplay between the bohemians feel forced and unnatural, and when Musetta breaks in with the bad news we don’t feel the jarring shock that we normally do. Mimi’s final aria (Sono andati), surely one of the most moving pieces of music ever written, just feels perfunctory, and Rodolfo just does not cry his heart out enough in the final scene (I want them tears and sobs dammit). Lyn Cheah feels it was rushed through - I am not sure but the pacing is definitely off and I didn’t leave the performance emotionally drained but satisfied like I normally do.

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