Lyndon Terracini was like an expectant father when Curtain Call spoke to him days before the opening of La bohème. Eighteen months after taking the reigns of Opera Australia, this was the artistic director’s first real chance to put his stamp on the national company. The baritone and former Brisbane Festival director has signalled some of his programming vision — a floating La Traviata on Sydney Harbour next year; the most epic return of the Ring Cycle in Melbourne in 2013 — but here was his first opportunity to shape the distinctive aesthetic on stage he’s talked about, overseeing casting and working with director Gale Edwards on an all-new production.
What’s more, he was aware more than anyone of the importance of this show. Opera companies live and die by the classics — bohème is in the top few most performed operas in the world — and new productions come at considerable financial and artistic risk. Some 40 performances have been scheduled, in Melbourne and later in Sydney, this year alone.
He needn’t have worried. The company took the bohemians to the bank on opening night. This will be as much a commercial success as it is an artistic triumph. The creative decisions made in updating Giacomo Puccini’s masterpiece are almost all inspired, creating both a worthy operatic adaptation and a fabulous piece of entertainment at once.
Terracini describes the opera experience as a series of remarkable moments for an audience. Edwards’ production delivers at least two, aurally and visually.
The first, in act one, is Rodolfo’s aria Che gelida manina. In the right tenor’s hands — Luciano Pavarotti wasn’t half-bad — it soars; the top C lifting the audience out of their seats as the young writer courts his shy seamstress. Korean Ji-Min Park nailed it. Not surprisingly, of course; he’s sung the role at Covent Garden with a reputation as one of the finest younger singers in the world. But a flawless delivery and real emotional intensity makes his appearance a pleasure for Australian audience.
In an inevitable comparison, Takesha Meshé Kizart’s following aria, Sì, mi chiamano Mimì, starts shakily. But the American soprano recovers to prove her international star power. Both leads, their inter-racial romance, imbue the exuberant bohemian spirit, of young hearts unbridled by the weight of the world. And that impending weight — set in pre-war 1930s Berlin rather than Paris in the 1800s (or Baz Luhrmann’s 1950s Broadway version) — shadows ominously.
I’d heard fears the company had chosen beauty over vocal brawn for its unquestionably sexy production. But the cast all delivered sturdy performance: Andrew Jones (Marcello), David Parkin (Colline) and Shane Lowrencev (Schaunard) were wonderful foils for Rodolfo, while Taryn Fiebig was a show-stopping seductress as Musetta. And John Bolton Wood is always a delight, in the all-too-brief role of landlord Benoit. Orchestra Victoria’s accompaniment, under the barton of Christian Badea, was crisp and assured.
And the other moment? That came in act two. Edwards takes us from a Parisian cafe in Puccini’s original to a bawdy Berlin nightclub, complete with suspender-clad topless courtesans (mute, what’s more; purely for aesthetic value). Brian Thomson’s set transforms before our eyes into the dazzlingly lit (John Rayment’s design), multi-leveled palace. Terracini told me he hoped the audience would applaud the set; they didn’t on opening night, but there were plenty of audible gasps.
The scene is everything we’ve come, however unfairly, to expect of an opera like this: crowded with performers (the kids’ chorus is always a welcome addition), all sumptuously costumed (Julie Lynch designs), in an exceptionally choreographed routine. It didn’t get any better than this, but it didn’t have to.
It’s those moments audiences keep returning to bohème for. Artistically, Opera Australia demonstrates there’s still plenty of love and life in the old girl yet. Terracini has every reason to be proud.
The details: La bohème has eight more performances until May 13. It moves to Sydney for 30 performances opening on July 12. Tickets on the company website.