The quintessential visit to Oz requires a romantic night out at the opera – specifically within the amazing performing arts center built by Danish architect Jørn Utzon, the UNESCO world heritage site which dominates Sydney Harbor.
Now on stage at the Sydney Opera is a new production of Puccini’s La bohème from director Gale Edwards, and designers Brian Thomson and Julie Lynch. The original opera was set in the Quartier Latin of Paris in 1830. Fast forward 100 years: Puccini’s romantic classic has been transplanted to the glittering Spiegeltent of 1930’s Berlin.
The joyful and free ambiance in the first two acts is overtaken by a dark atmosphere in the third and fourth; the artificial amusement and joys of the cabarets have in their counterpart the distant thunder of incoming Nazism. The re-imagined Café Momus is a decadent haven, where drugs, free sex, lesbians, gays, and artists from all over Europe are every day recurrence.
The modern rendering of Mimi and Rodolfo is far more realistic than typical casting, where a very fat and aged tenor courts a rotund soprano. Hyeseoung Kwon is actually a waif, resembling the appropriate Physique du Rôle for a Mimi. Similarly, Rodolfo (played by Martin Buckingham) is youthful and agile. Schaunard (played by Shane Lowrencev) is a gay character in this production; imagine that – a gay musician – how very PC. Musetta (played by Jacqueline Mabardi) is dressed to the nines in her dazzling cocktail gowns; she is coifed in the softer, curlier style of the 30s that radiates voluptuous femininity à la Jean Harlow. Her sizzling presentation provides great contrast for the juxtaposition of the passionate stormy relationship between Musetta and Marcello, to the more romantic love experienced between Mimi and Rodolfo at the climax of the third act. Buckingham radiates charm and charisma as his beautiful tenor voice enchants the audience with Puccini’s romanze. The entire opera is sustained by a perfectly balanced orchestra (impeccably conducted by Brian Castles-Onion) that never steals the stage from the actors; rather, it complements the voices like lovers walking hand in hand across a sunset-lit beach.
Stagecrafting for the opera is remarkably fresh: of particular note is the transition from act one to two, when a melancholic loft becomes a vibrant cabaret in the blink of an eye, thanks to clever and efficient engineering. Staging takes on a more abstract role in the opening scene of the third act, where a tollgate serves as a metaphor for the dramatic passage from Weimar Germany into an oppressive military dictatorship.
This interpretation of La bohème maintains the essence of ill-fated love, desire, and inevitable death without being excessively strappalacrime like most of the productions we have seen in the past.
This updated rendition, which could raise eyebrows in a more traditional venue like La Scala, fares magnificently in the ultra-modern Sydney Opera House, iconic jewel of the young country of Australia. Opera Australia presents a variety of works throughout the year. For more information, kindly visit http://www.sydneyoperahouse.com .