If you’ve seen, know and love Rent, you’ve kind-sorta seen La bohème and, though the music is, obviously, quite, quite different, you’ll probably love it too. What makes it all the easier to love is this spiffing, shiny new production (the first, if I’m not mistaken, since Baz Luhrmann’s 1990 take) from Opera Australia, fresh from it’s very recent debut in Melbourne. But even if OA’s production had lacked the lustre and panache it has, you’d be a hard-hearted person indeed not to succumb to the definitively operatic, quintessentially Italian, romantically sublime score, by Giacomo Puccini who, apparently, showed little or no talent for music as a boy, so all parents of would-be-if they could-be prodigies can take heart.
It’s been a few new moons since its debut at the Teatro Regio, Torino, on February 1, 1896, but the Pooch’s opera, based on Henri Murger’s novel, Scenes De La Vie Boheme, from 1851, is a stayer. Of course, when I say novel, La Vie De Boheme, as it’s probably better known, is hardly a novel at all; rather an informal collection of tenuously-related tales, connected by being set in the Latin Quarter of Paris in the 1840s. But that’s another discussion, for another place and time.
We shouldn’t underrate the contributions of librettists Luigi Illica and Guiseppe Giacosa, either. In the case of Illica, practically no one could’ve been better qualified to write about the fever-pitched extremities of passionate love, for he lost his right ear in a duel over a woman. But it’s OA’s contributions, and those of its guests, I’m really supposed to be talking about, so let’s start with Taiwanese conductor, Shao-Chia Lu, who again showcases the extraordinary versatility of the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, through his own talent with this luscious, rich, warm score, known for its concision.
Gale Edwards directs and has, in key scenes at least, achieved an overdone, decadent, debauched opulence befitting the cabaret aesthetic of pre-war Berlin, in which this production is set. Historically, it prefigures the sinister, but highly-polished, ugliness soon to come. Her vision, imbued with characteristically sharp wit, originality and heavy irony, has been bolstered by Brian Thomson’s set, Julie Lynch’s costumes and John Rayment’s radiant lighting design. Thomson’s Cafe Momus seems to make reference to the origin of the opera itself, since the location for Musetta’s first appearance, in act two (of four), has more than a passing resemblance, perhaps, to the aesthetic of the Royal Theatre of Turin.
Performance-wise there are no disappointments in this opera, as it sports a surprisingly level playing-field of excellent standard, but my favourite would almost certainly have to be South Korea’s Ji-Min Park as Rodolfo, the poet; a role he’s apparently honed and made his own, at the Royal Opera House, just last year. Not only does his fine tenor come prominently to the fore, but he distinguishes himself also as an actor of great merit. As a young man, he’s already collected a swag of prizes and honours, the greatest of which is the unforced, natural talent and charisma he exudes.
Andrew Jones’ Marcello is strong, while Taryn Fiebig fully inhabits the coquettish role of Musetta. But the other star of note and particular interest on this occasion, the beautiful, Chicago-born Takesha Meshe Kizart, was sobering in managing to capture the fragility of seamstress, Mimi, while delivering, vocally, an almost anachronistically open, shimmering performance almost threatening with its latent power. Here, clearly, was a refined V12 engine, a force to be reckoned with, relying on but a few of its cylinders, to fulfil the role in the most elegant, measured manner.
It goes without saying Puccini’s La bohème is a thing of immense and enduring beauty and OA’s latest version, while falling short of outright thrilling, nonetheless gives it a new lease of life and love.
The lynchpins are local heroes, like the crew, Fiebig and Jones, but no one can deny Shao-Chia Lu’s, Ji-Min Park’s and Kizart’s vigour, rigour, sophistication, or sheer class.
The details: La bohème has 28 more performances at the Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House, until October 24. Tickets on the company website.