Review: La Bohème brings the romance of Paris to Sydney Harbour (until April 22nd)

If you’ve dreamed of walking the wintery streets of Paris, then get yourself a ticket to this year’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour. Their current production of La Bohème is a spectacular tribute to the most romantic city in the world and will have you dancing in the snow despite the unseasonably warm Sydney Autumn air.

Originally set in the Latin Quarter of Paris in 1840s, La Bohème depicts the many faces of love. The opera opens with a depiction of the platonic, familial love of friends Rodolfo (a poet), Marcello (a painter), Colline (a philosopher) and Schaunard (a musician). Having come into money, Schaunard selflessly shares his windfall with his fellow bohemians. Rather than paying the rent that is owed to the landlord, they decide to celebrate with a night on the town. Rodolfo vows to join his friends as soon as he finishes his work, but is interrupted by Mimi, a poor seamstress, when she comes looking for a light. Now we see heady, youthful first love, as Rodolfo and Mimi fall instantly for one another.

They celebrate their new love by joining Rodolfo’s fellow bohemians at Café Momus, where Marcello comes face to face with his flirtatious former paramour, Musetta. Despite her current entanglement with an older, richer gentleman, Musetta uses her seductive powers to win Marcello back.

But love also has a cruel side, and in Acts Three and Four we see this play out against the backdrop of the 1848 Revolution when Musetta and Mimi are forced to contend with their partners’ jealousy. In this production, the characters have been relocated to Paris in 1967-8, when economic pressures led to a series of student protests and factory worker riots. Frustrated by the confines of their current relationships, Mimi and Musetta seek a better life with far wealthier men. Ultimately, Mimi succumbs to tuberculosis, dying in the apartment where she and Rodolfo first met. She has been brought there by Musetta, who hopes that by rekindling her love for Rodolfo, Mimi may survive her illness. Musetta is left to console herself in the arms of Marcello, while Rodolfo is struck by the cold hand of heartbreak.

Puccini’s La Bohème may not be as well known as some of the other operas to grace the harbour stage, but thanks to Dan Potra’s design it is nonetheless a work that benefits from being transported outdoors. Potra’s set is, at first glance, a simple affair. The circular, sloping stage, which looks a little like an oversized comma, is painted to resemble icy cobblestones. Old-fashioned street lights, wrought iron railings and ancient looking stonework add to the European feel. At the top of the stage sits a solid rise, with a plain backdrop divided into rectangles which align geometrically with a glass panelled ‘ceiling’ that soars high into the night sky. A dumping of snow and ice rims the stage, making the whole thing appear a little like an iceberg floating obtusely on the harbour.

But add in visual effects (lighting design by Matthew Marshall) such as dappled lighting, billows of steam curling up from the subway vents and a steady fall of snow and you are instantly transported to France in winter. So much so I feared the performers might slip and fall on the slippery streets!

The spectacle is further enhanced with projections, which deliver distinctly French iconography. The glass ceiling acts as a screen upon which various visual cues are presented throughout the performance. Meanwhile, a secondary wall upstage right is used for more literal location-based visuals. Marco Devetak‘s videos are largely successful, if at odds with the realism of the rest of the set, drawing stylistically on the atelier populaire art movement that arose during the period.

There are also some fun scenic elements that take advantage of the outdoors, including the entrance of Parpignol and the colourful smoke which rises from the exceptionally tall chimney when the starving artists light a fire.

Against this bleak, cold set, Potra’s vibrant 60s costumes spring to life. Children frolic in patriotic red, white and blue, while couples strut past in fashionable coats, colourful mini-skirts and boots. Potra’s choices for Rodolfo and Mimi are more muted (even the famous pink bonnet is on the pastel side), and Marcello, too, has a washed out look, especially when standing next to Musetta, who’s dazzling first dress is a showstopper. The only mis-step for my mind was Schaunard’s garish pink three-piece suit; while fun, it’s also terribly distracting.

On opening night, Mimi was played by Iulia Maria Dan, whose vocal seemed a fraction sharp and overpowering at the beginning, perhaps due to sound mixing issues, but settled nicely by the second half. Her portrayal of the frail and timid seamstress was sound, but slightly overshadowed by Ho-Yoon Chung, as Rodolfo. Chung’s emotion was clearly visible, despite the large, open stage and his voice was rich and confident.

As Marcello, Samuel Dundas gave an energetic performance, with his voice a standout during small group numbers. Julie Lea Goodwin, fresh from her role as Hanna in The Merry Widow, is good as the flirtatious Musetta. A quick wink to the audience on her entrance sets the tone but she falls slightly short of matching Dundas’ enthusiasm for the role.

Comic relief is provided by Richard Anderson (Colline) and Christopher Hillier (Schaunard). Hillier’s performance matches the overtness of his suit, and Anderson’s love song to his coat in the final act is rich and heartfelt.

Director Andy Morton employs a terrific number of ensemble members in this production and though they are not required to do a significant amount of singing and dancing, their presence on stage is very welcome. The chorus serve to remind us this is a bustling city, whose people are happy to walk the streets despite the cold. Tiny little narratives play out across the stage, reminding us that Rodolfo and Mimi are just two lovers in a place teeming with life. At these moments, I recommend raising your eyes from the subtitles to simply drink in this nuanced scene work. The chorus is, however, underutilised. There are some overlong scene changes (such as the removal of two cars at the beginning of the final Act) which would benefit from covering action from the cast. This, along with a couple of technical issues with lighting, detracted from the overall experience and held the audience back from building a strong emotional connection.

Musically, although they are not seen, the orchestra is certainly heard! Under the baton of Brian Castles-Onion, the Opera Australia Orchestra gives Puccini’s score all the light and shade it demands. The softer moments, particularly when the flute is showcased, were almost reverential, while the joyous uprising at the end of Act Two blended seemlessly into the pop of the obligatory fireworks.

Overall this is an atmospheric and immersive experience which will appeal to opera fans and Francophiles. From the French-themed offerings at the bar, to the flurries of snow that fall throughout interval, the world of the production extends far beyond the stage. Dive in and feel the love!

FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour presents La Bohème at Mrs Macquaries Point between 23rd March and 22nd April 2018. For tickets, click here.

The reviewer attended opening night, Friday 23rd March.

Photo credit Prudence Upton