Sydney-based travel, film and music writer, www.jasminecrittenden.net
Puccini's classic opera set in 1930s Berlin
Credit: Keith Saunders. Opera Australia chorus.
This production transports Giacomo Puccini's 1896 opera La Boheme from 1830s Paris to 1930s Berlin, when the progressive Weimar Republic ruled Germany. In this Bohemian society, decadence and glamour live side-by-side with abject poverty. Neon lights, lashings of velvet and scantily-clad dancers abound. But, beneath the devil-may-care excess, lurks a sinister force.
Credit: Keith Saunders. Samuel Dundas as Marcello, Shane Lowrencev as Schaunard, Graeme Macfarlane as Benoît, Ivan Magrė as Rodolfo and Taras Berezhansky as Colline.
We first meet Rodolfo (Ivan Magrė) at home in a bitterly cold attic, where he lives with three friends: Marcello (Samuel Dundas), a painter; Colline (David Parkin), a philosopher; and Schaunard (Shane Lowrencev), a musician. Despite their poverty driving them to desperate acts, such as burning their work for heating, they hold fiercely to the Romantic ideal of placing their artistic pursuits above practicalities. Plus, they delight in one another's company a delight that Edwards' production conveys with uplifting spirit, warmth and humour in the first act.
Credit: Keith Saunders. Joyce El-Khoury as Mimė.
But, one evening, a knock on the door disrupts their world. Enter Mimi (Joyce El-Khoury), an embroiderer, who captures Rodolfo's heart. Their initial encounter involves La Boheme's best-known aria, 'Che Gelida Manina', which Sicilian-born tenor Magrė delivers with an agile, compelling mix of dark lyricism and charming openness well met by Canadian soprano El-Khoury's strong, rich interpretation of 'Sė. Mi chiamano Mimė'.
Credit: Keith Saunders. Anna Princeva as Musetta, Samuel Dundas as Marcello and the Opera Australia ensemble.
Parallel to Mimi and Rodolfo's tumultuous love affair is that of Marcello and the beautiful, provocative Musetta (Anna Princeva). We learn of it at Cafe Momus, which set designer Brian Thomson transforms into a lavish cabaret club, filled with glittering lights and sumptuous costumes, designed by Julie Lynch. The scene's extreme busyness at times threatens its emotive impact, but, nonetheless, Princeva cuts through with a bright yet seductive rendition of 'Quando M'en Vo'.
Credit: Keith Saunders. Joyce El-Khoury as Mimė and Ivan Magrė as Rodolfo.
The characters' fall from the joys of romance to the agonies of jealousy and illness is mirrored by the descent of the Weimar Republic into Nazi rule. As winter deepens, the action shifts from luxurious Cafe Momus to bleak city pavements, stalked by hard-faced soldiers. Both the characters and the audience begin to question the relationship between passion and self-control and between individual fulfilment and social duty.
Edwards' La Boheme this time starring a charismatic, international cast is a vibrant, dramatic take on Puccini's classic, that explores its perennial themes, but in a disturbing new setting.