La Boheme, Wednesday 29th October 2008. Broadcast on ABC2.
This was a sorry piece of opera on television. The inevitable comparison with recent live broadcasts from the Met and elsewhere shows this was a dismal failure in almost every respect.
La Boheme revolves around Rodolfo yet Italian tenor Carlo Barricelli was not up to the mark. He looked awkward on stage and while he may be adequate in the opera theatre, he was not the man for close-ups, visually or vocally. His voice sounded strained and unpleasant at times. He managed the most taxing notes of ‘Che gelida manina’ but had little nuanced line to his singing.
Ms Halloran (Mimi) and Ms Farrugia (Musetta) both sang adequately, as did the students, played by Jose Carbo, Richard Anderson and Warwick Fyfe. Mr Carbo has a fine stage presence and it is a shame he seems to be underutilised by the company. John Bolton-Wood was good as the Jewish landlord and elderly paramour, Alcindoro. However, with the exception of the Waltz Song in Act II, the opera never quite came to life for me. It was like a cast of competent understudies.
From a technical viewpoint a series of things went horribly wrong. In fact, hardly anything went right. Latecomers walking down the rows blocked the picture like an old fashioned cinema. The lighting seemed to be skewed pink and orange at times, notably in the Café Momus scene. In the middle of Act III there was a sudden break of continuity as the scene jumped forward a minute or more. Rodolfo appears from nowhere, like a ‘Scotty beam me up’ character. The camera views were conventional but they excluded the orchestra and conductor which should be half the pleasure of live opera. The characters each had head microphones so the sound was artificially mixed and unlike what it sounded like in the theatre, most obvious with Mimi’s tubercular coughing. We expect better than this from our national broadcaster
During the 15 minute intermission a non-English speaking singer was interviewed without an interpreter. Unlike Manuel on Fawlty Towers, it was not funny. Why would the ABC choose to use one of the country’s best known comedians, Chris Taylor as co-host? He looked and sounded like he was playing a comedy routine. Along with Jennifer Byrne, they showed not the slightest insight into the opera and each used an enthusiastic ‘over-the-top’ approach as if this were the greatest show on earth which it certainly was not!
Chris Taylor told us, incorrectly, that this was a ‘brand new’ production. In his interview with Ms Farrugia he mis-pronounced Musetta as Masetto on repeated occasions despite being corrected. Maestro Cuneo’s corridor interview was haltering and meaningless, following shallow and leading questions from Jennifer Byrne. There was also an irrelevant reference to Puccini being ‘popular with the ladies’.
Mr Taylor may have jinxed the broadcast in saying they would ‘try to cross to Federation Square later’. When they did, our screen went blank for several minutes, without explanation. And when we did finally see the southern capital, only about a dozen diehards were in the huge square watching the big screen. Simon Phillips’ only useful comment was that his production was not really meant to be seen from close-up.
They say that everything in the theatre is about timing. Well, it was hopeful at best, incompetent at worst, to broadcast La Boheme mid-week at the end of a run of 6 performances in 12 days. The singers could not have been in top form. The commentary was unrehearsed and amateurish. The transmission and camera work had deficiencies. The Benoit ‘rent-collection’ scene had almost 50 changes of camera, more like a tennis match than a clever verbal stoush between seated characters. Both Mr Barricelli and Mr Fyfe took liberties with Puccini’s score.
As a cruel twist, the broadcast finished with the famous vocals of David Hobson and Cheryl Barker singing the Act I duet during the credits. The original video of La Boheme from this company with Baz Luhrmann is still popular to this day and serves to remind us of what this company could do with some imagination and flair which is sadly lacking today.
Rather than trying to repeat history, a broadcast of the company’s recent production of Billy Budd would have been much more logical. It had a world renowned cast, director and conductor and would have been a unique and worthy Australian contribution to the world of opera on film with an international market. It might have even made money!
This La Boheme broadcast provides further evidence that the opera company is being mismanaged. Such pedestrian standards should cause an immediate review of the company before it is too late. If the subscriber base wanes and public funding tied to jobs and standards dries up then repertory opera could cease to exist in this country.
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