Review / Sensitive revival of popular ‘Bohème’

Opera / Puccini’s “La Bohème”. At Sydney Opera House. Directed by Gale Edwards, conducted by Benjamin Northey, until March 28. Reviewed by HELEN MUSA

Joyce El-Khoury as Mimì and Ivan Magrì as Rodolfo.

THE exceptional popularity of Opera Australia’s “La Bohème” was once again seen when the company summer season opened with this 2011 production by Gail Edwards, with set designs by Brian Thomson and costumes and glamorous costumes by Julie Lynch.

This, along with Graeme Murphy’s “Turandot” and John Bell’s “Tosca” provides a triple whammy of Puccinis that are proven money-spinners for the company, as the packed house attested.

Sensitively rehearsed by revival director Hugh Halliday, who draws convincing performances from the singers, it still displays the bare bones of the original clever production, although the crammed confines of the Opera Theatre stage make the clowning of Act II look artificial.

Edwards and Thomson claim to have transported this 19th century Parisian drama into 20th century Germany during the Weimar Republic, using visual inspiration from German artist and caricaturist George Grosz to capture a city full of street fairs and burlesque bars of 1930s Berlin.

Samuel Dundas as Marcello, Taras Berezhansky as Colline, Shane Lowrencev as Schaunard, Joyce El-Khoury as Mimì and Ivan Magrì as Rodolfo.

But the timelessness of the simple story still works its magic on the audiences, who simply see a basic if magnificent structure, lit and decorated with changes of props to represent a Parisian garret, an outdoor café and the toll-gates of Paris.

Taking the Opera House stage for the first time are Canadian-Lebanese soprano Joyce El-Khoury and Sicilian tenor Ivan Magrì, both possessed of magnificent voices and superior acting skills. El-Khoury’s vocal range takes her from delicate hesitancy to full-blooded expressions of intense emotion, then back to the almost quiet strains that suggest her underlying illness.

Magrì, comfortable in his voice, allows himself he luxury of a little satire in playing the poet who doesn’t mind his own manuscript to keep warm.

Conductor Benjamin Northy sets the tone for Puccini’s distinctive mix of comedy and tragedy, beginning with a light touch in the opening scenes and building with evident feeling to the final tragic scenes.

Anna Princeva as Musetta and Andrew Moran as Alcindoro.

While OA has stressed the magnificence of its international guest artists, the regular members of the company shone in this production, which begins as baritone Samuel Dundas gives us a glowing, flamboyant Marcello, with Shane Lowrencev as the musician Schaunard and Ukrainian bass Taras Berezhansky as the philosopher Colline picking up the pace. In the Act I scene with the artists and their landlord, the laughs coming, the excellent surtitles providing a cynical backdrop to the intensities of love to come.

In Act II Russian soprano, Anna Princeva, plays Musetta’s flamboyant extrovert version of love in perfect contrast with that of Mimi’s, but the sopranos who follow her in this lengthy season will be able to step into a characterisation well laid-out in Edwards’ original production.

The high point of this “La Bohème” is the snowbound scene at the gates of Paris, where the psychological motivations of all the characters are revealed. Both Mimi and Rodolfo perform with exquisite sensitivity in the lengthy ‘farewell’ sequence, underscored by the passionate row between Musetta and Marcello that shows a different kind of love.

Act IV brings further character development as Princeva shows us the humanity of her character, but it is really El-Khoury’s scene as she defies credibility to bring us the dying Mimi.

All photos by Keith Saunders



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