Presented by State Opera of SA by arrangement with Opera Australia
Reviewed Saturday 7th July 2012
Giacomo Puccini’s four act opera was first produced in 1896, but was not an instant success. It eventually became popular, and has lost none of its appeal with time. Although the title page of the libretto, by Luigi Illica and Guiseppe Giacosa, acknowledges that the works draws in part from Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de bohème, as well as the play, La vie de bohème, that he wrote with Théodore Barrière, much of it is actually original. The opera is now one of the most often performed in the standard repertoire. The 1996 musical Rent is based on this opera, with AIDS replacing consumption as the incurable illness, confirming its timelessness.
It is a bright, clear Christmas Eve in the Latin Quarter of Paris, sometime around 1830, and we are in the rooftop garret of four artists: Rodolfo, a poet, Marcello, a painter, Schaunard, a musician, and Colline, a philosopher. Rodolfo stays to finish some writing when the other three go out for meal and this is when Mimí, a seamstress from the floor below, calls to ask if he can relight her candle, then soon after says that she has now lost her key. While helping her to look for it, both of their candles are blown out and he finds and pockets the key in order to spend more time with her.
A little later, in the Café Momus, the four Bohemians see Marcello’s past love, Musetta, enter with her latest beau Alcindoro, a city councillor. She has obviously tired of him and treats him like a slave, sending him off to get a shoe adjusted, claiming that it is too tight and hurts her. She then immediately makes a play for Marcello, rekindling their affair. Finding that they do not have enough to pay the bill, she charges it all to Alcindoro and they all leave.
Three months later, at the city toll gates, Mimí, coughing badly, is looking for Marcello, as Rodolfo has left her. She finds Marcello and learns that Rodolfo is staying with Marcello and, as he appears, Mimí hides and hears him tell Marcello that he abandoned her as he knew that she was seriously ill with consumption (tuberculosis) and that he was too poor to help. He hoped that she would find a rich man to take care of her. They agree to stay together until the spring arrives, and then part amicably.
Next we are back at the Left Bank garret and find the four Bohemians still poverty stricken, pretending that their meagre meal is a lavish banquet. Musetta enters with Mimí, who is clearly far worse. She found a rich Viscount, who took care of her, but she left him, and Musetta found her wandering the streets. The others leave to pawn things to buy medicine, leaving Mimí and Rodolfo alone to recall their time together. When they return she is unconscious and, eventually succumbs to her illness, leaving Rodolfo distraught.
This restaging of the Opera Australia production, directed by Gale Edwards, is set, not in 1830s Paris, but in 1930s Berlin, where the Café Momus becomes a Weimar Republic Kabarett. It is filled with the patrons, staff, and ‘hostesses’, all looked down upon by Joseph Goebbels and his henchmen, as he makes notes of who he will remove.
Amy Wilkinson and James Egglestone play Mimí and Rodolfo, a nice contrast between her seemingly naïve young girl, infatuated with her neighbour and determined to meet him, and his more worldly young man who finds himself falling genuinely in love. The build a very convincing relationship and the emotional intensity continued to build until the eventual climax.
Nicholas Lester and Jacqueline Mabardi take the roles of Marcello and Musetta and again there is another good pairing, bringing out the fiery relationship between these two on again, off again lovers. They certainly show that sparks fly when they are together and Lester lets us see how badly Marcello is affected when they are separated.
Pelham Andrews as Colline and Guy Booth as Schaunard complete the group of Bohemian friends. The rich deep voice of Andrews seems perfectly suited to a philosopher, a serious thinker, whilst Booth’s effeminate and flamboyant Schaunard is most fitting for the Weimar period.
As their landlord, Benoit, Andrew Turner plays the fool beautifully, falling for their attempts to ply him with alcohol and finally being thrown out of their room in a classic bit of Commedia del Arte. In the role of Alcindoro, Adam Goodburn again shows his versatility, as well as his fine voice. Robert Mcfarlane’s all to brief appearance as Parpignol is worth watching for amidst the chaos of the busy café scene. Busy is hardly the word for the café, with adult and children’s choruses, hostesses, Goebbels and his entourage, a stilt walker and an onstage band, as well as the principals, all crowded into the Kabarett.
The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra takes Puccini’s music and, under the Australian born Conductor, Kynan Johns, polishes it to a brilliant finish. Everything that is happening on stage is reflected in the orchestral score and the orchestra shows its awareness of the fact that it is not merely an accompaniment but an important part of creating the appropriate emotional atmosphere at every point in the story.
The State Opera Chorus and the State Opera Children’s Chorus are kept busy in the café scene, Chorus Master, Timothy Sexton, having done a fine job of rehearsing them. They do not appear as a homogenous group, but a disparate collection of individual characters from all walks of society, showing that they can act as well as they sing. Julie Lynch’s costumes are a great help in setting the scene, not just for the costumes of the principals, but with attention to detail on every member of the choruses as well.
Brian Thomson’s set for the garret is an octagonal space, a smaller version of the Spiegeltent, each of the wall panels topped with glazed sections, the floor painted in red and blue in a dartboard pattern and the conical roof similarly coloured. One of the walls is being painted by Marcello, a mural of a sea scene For the second act the panels revolve to become Café Momus, with alcoves, balconies and a bar. For the city gates, the panels are replaced with steel mesh, reverting to the garret for the final act, but with the murals on the walls now completed. There is also occasional use of a revolving stage, although it does not seem to be either a necessity, or integral to the performance. John Rayment’s lighting is extremely important in setting the mood and has been designed with considerable sensitivity to the libretto.
This was another very fine night of opera from our State Opera company, but you might need to be very quick if you still want to get tickets, if opening night’s full house was anything to judge by.
Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Arts Editor, Glam Adelaide.
Venue: Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre, King William Road, Adelaide
Season: 7:30pm Tues 10th, Thurs 12th and Sat 14th July 2012
Duration: 2hr 30mins (intvl 25mins)
Tickets: adult $55-175/conc $45-145
Bookings: BASS 131 246 or online here