1968 was an eventful year. An exhibition currently on show at the National Library of Australia commemorates the 50th Anniversary of when the Library opened its doors to the public in 1968. It was the same year in which riots swept through the Latin Quarter in Paris almost bringing the government to its knees.
It is also the year chosen by Andy Morton and his designer, Dan Potra, for the setting of their production of La Boheme, in which the riots are referenced in the third act which takes place in a street strewn with rubble and car wrecks, one of which is still burning.
The challenge of staging an opera, most of which takes place indoors during the winter, is neatly solved by Potra’s multi-level design which allows the audience to observe the action from both the interior and exterior of the Parisian garret occupied by Rodolfo and his friends.
The garret is furnished with op-shop finds including a blow-up chair and dilapidated leather chesterfield. It has a huge overhead window on to which are projected images, most effectively during Puccini’s famous hit-songs, Your Tiny Hand is Frozen and They Call Me Mimi both which were superbly sung and acted on opening night by Iulia Maria Dan (Mimi) and Ho-Yoon Chung (Rodolfo).
A snow-storm (Yes really!) heralded the beginning of the second act, which takes place in a bustling market-place in front of the café Momus. Acrobats and stall holders spectacularly ply their trades, while a toy vendor named Parpignol (Simon Gilkes) floats overhead apparently suspended by multi-coloured balloons.
Musetta (Julie Lea Goodwin costumed in dazzling silver sequins and sporting flaming red hair) arrived in a paddy wagon with her escort Alcindoro, (John Bolton Wood) and after a thrilling rendition of Musetta’s Waltz, decided to create havoc to attract the attention of Marcello (Samuel Dundas).
Act three begins with Mimi wandering through the snow in riot torn streets where she discovers Marcello and confides in him that Rodolfo, overcome with jealousy, has deserted her. Later, standing in the snow below a window, she overhears Rodolfo tell Marcello that he is worried that Mimi is seriously ill and may not have much longer to live. As Rodolfo leaves the building, she attracts his attention, and together, sitting in a car wreck, they reaffirm their love for each other.
The final scene in which Musetta discovers the dying Mimi in the snow and takes her to Rodolfo’ s garret, should be the most moving of all, but, on opening night, the too bright lighting design robbed it of atmosphere. Also, both Mimi and Musetta were hampered by unflattering costumes in this scene. The result being that despite excellent singing, especially Richard Anderson’s fine interpretation of the Old Coat aria, the cast struggled to achieve the level of pathos necessary in this scene to bring the opera to its memorable conclusion.
These blemishes aside, this production of La Boheme is a remarkable achievement. Tony David Cray’s miraculous sound design which achieves superb balance between the brilliant vocals and the thrilling richness of Brian Castles-Onion’s orchestral sound, together with Andy Morton’s inventive direction, Dan Potra’s imaginative sets and costumes, and the breathtaking Sydney skyline, provides an unequalled spectacle which has to be experienced to be fully appreciated.
Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour – La Boheme
Fleet Steps – Mrs Macquarie Point, Sydney
Performance: Friday 23 March 2018 – 7.30pm
Season continues to 22 April 2018
Information and Bookings: www.opera.org.au
Image: Opera Australia’s 2018 production of Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, La Bohème – photo by Prudence Upton
Review: Bill Stephens OAM