Opera Australia Review 2023: La Bohème

Opera Australia Delivers Unique Take on Puccini Classic

By Gordon Williams
(Photo credit: Prudence Upton)

The stories on which Puccini based his much-loved opera “La Bohème” (Henri Murger’s “Tales from Bohemian Life”) were set in Paris in the 1830s. Puccini and his librettists distilled from Murger’s diverse and diffuse vignettes of life amid the crowded echelons of poorer Parisian society a throughline of love and dying among four young struggling artist-friends and the lovers of two of them.

“La bohème” portrays contrasting loves – one perhaps frivolous and ephemeral: that of Musetta and Marcello, the other, the more important: that of Mimì and Rodolfo – sincere and passionate but doomed.

‘La Bohème’ in 1930’s Berlin

Gale Edwards’ production of “Bohème,” first produced by Opera Australia in 2011 and revived again at Sydney Opera House on January 14th this year, is set in 1930s Berlin, “among the social upheaval of the last months of the Weimar Republic (to quote the program booklet).”

The periods have some similarities. Similar levels of poverty perhaps. And an atmosphere of bohemian artistic endeavor – Rodolfo the poet and his friends Marcello, Schaunard and Colline are painter, musician and philosopher respectively. We can love these characters and in Opera Australia’s production Korean soprano Karah Son (Mimì), Peruvian tenor Iván Ayón Rivas (Rodolfo), baritone Haotian Qi as Marcello, Julie Lea Goodwin as Musetta and Alexander Sefton and Richard Anderson as Schaunard and Colline earned our affection. Almost in the spirit of an ensemble piece these casts will change during the course of the run, twice more in the case of Mimì.

The relocation (and updating) raises the question about the importance of Paris to Puccini’s story. Weimar-era Berlin is not necessarily the “city of love.” Our associations with that period, arguably, are harder and grittier. But perhaps you have to admire a love achieved against that setting. Certainly, the Act one love scene in this production was transporting.
Act one’s loft – the place where the four friends live, work, and try to earn enough to eat and stay warm and alive – was huge. Marcello’s “Red Sea” painting which gives rise to his opening lines (“This ‘Red Sea’ of mine makes me feel cold and numb…”) was a mural for the vast walls, not necessarily a painting which someone in desperate straits might expect to sell, but the sight of this mural complete across the walls in Act four was one of the niftier methods of showing this story’s passage of time.

It may be mundane to note that it would take a lot to heat this space – designer Brian Thomson’s set carried associations of a spiegeltent – but the space was also receptive for the horseplay of the four boys that sets up the tragedy to come. The scene where they get Benôit the landlord (Andrew Moran) drunk so he’ll forget to collect rent felt appropriate and integral, though perhaps pinching a clown who comes in earlier (yes, in Act one), and causing him/her to yelp was a bit too circus-y.

How might this space work for the intimacy of the big Act one highlight when Mimì comes to the door of the boys’ apartment after Rodolfo has been left there alone, and we hear what librettist Illica designated as the “self-introductions” – “Che gelida manina,” “Sì, mi chiamano Mimì,” and “O soave fanciulla?” Perhaps the initial acting was a little shallow – Rivas slicking down his hair at the sight of a pretty girl, Karah Son’s preening bashfulness, but there was great detail in delivery of the text – a hushed “aspetti” and yes, I waited. Vocally the two lifted us in sync with their rising love and under the direction of conductor Michelangelo Mazza the orchestra accompanied sympathetically and beautifully.

Embracing the New Setting

This relocation to Berlin worked best perhaps for Act two, which the Puccini team had set at Paris’s Café Momus. Here the café became a Weimar-era nightclub with tiered balconies. “Became” is an understatement. The way Brian Thomson’s turned indoors from outdoors was kind of breathtaking – a marvelous piece of stage business.

Once inside there was actual physical realization of the abrasive outside world (and colorful outside world, thanks to Julie Lynch’s costumes) coming in and framing the love which has just begun, what with the arrival of Parpignol and the children and the final parade. Chorus work was thrilling. I should also mention a revolving stage which assumed later importance.
There is another couple in this opera – Marcello and Musetta.

In the hands of Haotian Qi, there was real anguish from Marcello as Musetta (Julie Lea Goodwin), now flirting with an older richer man, Alcindoro (Andrew Moran, in his second role), inflamed his jealousy with her waltz song. Placing a microphone in front of her was appropriate to the 1930s – it is a cabaret after all – but we knew that the taunting extravagance of her delivery of “Quando m’en vo” was directed at Marcello.

The end of the act however produced some dissonance – the sight of one of the chorus members giving a Nazi salute? The dark underside of Puccini’s work is mortality, not necessarily violence. But the look on Alcindoro’s face when the friends made off and left him with their bill was a great way to bring down the curtain.

You could sum up “La Bohème” as a story of innocence lost to death, and one interpretive question might be “Where does the innocence turn?” There have been productions where it still hasn’t turned until Act four, so that Mimì’s death becomes a shock. And productions where the surtitles have highlighted Mimì’s Act two observation, in the midst of an ensemble, that Musetta “the poor thing” really is in love with Marcello – Mimì showing a consciousness of deep love that Musetta and Marcello themselves may not be conscious of (yet).

I felt the change here in Act three. The Barriere d’Enfers tollgate where Puccini and his collaborators set Act three became a cage, almost a holding cell. Karah Son’s various outpourings – where she talks about the difficulties in her relationship with Rodolfo – were extremely powerful here, and the beautiful ironic counterpoint of her and Rodolfo considering and postponing a farewell while Marcello and Musetta squabbled on a revolving part of the stage was visually as well as musically contrasting and eloquent.

By Act four of course those customary antics of the “flatmates” are interrupted by the arrival of Mimì now at death’s door symbolized in this production by a huge coughing fit. The friends rally around to save her and the philosopher among the party, Colline, decides he must pawn his beloved overcoat to buy her medicine. On the surface, it may be difficult to take Colline’s mournful “Overcoat Aria” seriously, notwithstanding he is a philosopher and may habitually overthink, but bass Richard Anderson’s delivery was quiet and respectful, introducing a nice somber tone to these last few moments.

Setting vs. Scenery

In a recent TV interview for his show, “Your Honor” set in New Orleans, Bryan Cranston, talked of how setting should be more than scenery. It felt as if he was talking of how setting speaks to storyline. I occasionally questioned the Weimar setting for “La Bohème.” But the passing of the seasons is another design feature of Puccini’s work. Early on Mimì longs for the sunlight of spring or, later, to keep it from ending her and Rodolfo’s wintry affair, and in Edwards’ Act three Marcello and Musetta danced in the falling snow – a moment where the visuals particularly matched the music. Perhaps it was inevitable that this would be the production poster which promises a “La Boheme” as romantic any you will ever see, even though the couple depicted are Musetta and Marcello.

But it amazes me how different productions of “La Bohème” bring out features I hadn’t heard before: an orchestral detail sometimes; sometimes a line.

I was very taken by Marcello’s advice to Mimì about the higher durability of his and Musetta’s affair: “I take Musetta lightly.” It was almost a shrug, a bit of worldly wisdom. Marcello is one of Puccini’s sympathetic baritones and Qi came across as such in this production. The other line that I remembered was a word right at the very end when Mimì is dead and Marcello says to Rodolfo “coraggio.” Given the spiegeltent and cabaret, would it be too much to regard it as a show-must-go-on sentiment? Certainly ‘coraggio’ had immense power here.

And always the music thrived. Michelangelo Mazza’s take on the score was ample and generous. A key moment for me: the swelling and the precise moment of that swell through a slowed-down 13th to tonic chordal progression in Act three just before Rodolfo and Marcello visualize their girls. It may be a nerdy detail, but this progression is typical of the high emotion of turn-of-the-20th-century music, and the way Mazza gave this device extra worth was emblematic of his interpretation, a reading that was full of persuasive movement.

In the last seconds, light shone through the upper windows of the boys’ tent space – a beautiful, if heartbreaking effect with Mimì dead downstage – Lighting Designer John Rayment telling us that spring had finally, ironically, arrived.


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