La Boheme at the Sydney Opera House. Tuesday 12th July 2011
This was an enjoyable and ‘different’ La Boheme. The publicity told us that the action is moved to Germany but I could see nothing uniquely German except for some Biedermeier-looking furniture at one stage.
The student ‘garret’ is a huge hexagon of which four sides are displayed, rather like the inside of a gasometer. There are two high rows of tiny windows to the outside with ladders, planks and a gantry from which one gathers that Marcello is painting the Red Sea as per the first line of the opera. And by Act 4 indeed we have an enormous vista of the biblical scene – which some sources intriguingly call the ‘Sea of Reeds’ rather than the ‘Red Sea’. So now I realise how the Pharaoh was to be drowned – this is the opera’s second line. Some research showed that this stage set may represent some sort of travelling ‘Globe’ theatre called a spiegeltent (Dutch for ‘mirror tent’).
The Café Momus scene has a mid-act coup when four lateral flats rotate to reveal eight theatre boxes and we are indoors again in a cabaret venue. The same set could be used for the casino scene in Manon. The Act III set is also tasteful with the requisite city gates, falling snow and adjacent inn.
Mr Ji-Min Park is an excellent Rodolfo. He is young and good looking with fine acting skills. His voice is pleasing in quality and size with effortless and even movements up the scale. His musicality is tasteful and appears natural. The diction in Italian is fine but I noted that he pronounced cinque as sinque in the first act (a small point indeed).
Ms Kizart is an equally fine Mimi, finding all the necessary nuances for this tragic role, yet avoiding the melodrama it could so easily become.
An announcement was made by Mr Lyndon Terracini that Marcello would be sung by Mr Andrew Jones, a young artist with the company, due to a winter virus which is going around. He was superlative in this very substantial role. Despite having no aria he is the fourth lovers’ link which is so crucial to the tension and balance of the story line.
Taryn Fiebig stepped up to the role of Musetta and was also highly satisfying and “out there”. Likewise David Parkin as Colline and Shane Lawrencev as Schaunard … although it was tiresome that the latter was made to play the fop, dandy and campy part over and over in the opera, (rather like ‘Harold’ in Boys in the Band - but without the depth).
The orchestra was again conducted by Shao-Chia Lu from Taiwan … with flare and pace … they received a great reception in the resumption of Act III (there was only one intermission – a mistake in my view).
We are told that the company is in deep trouble with a 15% annual contraction of their subscriber base … only saved on occasion by individual box office successes (Madam Butterfly, My Fair Lady, Carmen, G&S, etc). This time there are thirty performances of La Boheme over nearly four months with three different casts. Can this be a Boheme-led recovery? I don’t think so. This company has had two second-rate productions of Boheme in recent years so most subscribers have seen the opera numerous times of late, like Madame Butterfly. One only hopes that there are lots of newcomers out there to discover the joys of opera through these current performances.
I am intrigued and dismayed at the press statements from the company’s artistic director. Within days of joining the company he stated that doing a Ring Cycle would be a great idea - but not in Sydney(!). Now they have opera on the water with a ‘pontoon’ Traviata … will it be Aida-on-ice next? While doing overseas performances and these other side shows, the company’s subscribers’ are charged high prices for relatively ordinary quality opera. Mr Terracini’s pointed comments about looking-the-part on stage in last week’s newspaper are banal as they are naïve. So Pavarotti would not have measured up! Some of the greatest draw-cards at the New York Met today are on the large side - others are old - but they all have something special in their throats!
So rather than addressing a serious problem with the company, the present management seems to have no insight and plays popular pieces to a nebulous public (cruise ships and newcomers) while ignoring their own support base of 50 years. About ten years ago they started deviating from a successful traditional formula which had served the company well for decades. And now it shows in the disappearance of their audiences as well as in the quality and variety of their work. One only hopes that it is not too late … but when seemingly three quarters of this year’s performances are Butterfly, Boheme, Merry Widow or Carmen we have a problem, Houston. And yet at the other end of the operatic spectrum we have Capriccio, Partenope, Of Mice and Men and The Love of the Nightingale, none of which forms the meat of an operatic sandwich. Indeed, Macbeth is the only single opera I was really looking forward to this year (I concede narrow tastes). But one single opera?? How times have changed!
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