LA BOHEME - HANDA OPERA ON SYDNEY HARBOUR
LA BOHEME, Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, Opera Australia at Mrs Macquarie’s Point; 23 March-22 April 2018. Photography by Prudence Upton: above - snowy Paris on Sydney harbour; below: Iulia Maria Dan and Ho-Yoon Chung; below again - Julie Lea Goodwin and John Bolton wood
Hard to believe that Opera Australia artistic director Lyndon Terracini’s crack-brained scheme to stage grand opera outdoors at Mrs Macquarie’s Chair is now in its seventh year. In that time it has become a full-on, bona fide Sydney summer thing and its attraction for visitors is evident in the second set of surtitles – in simplified Chinese – and the many different foreign voices in the audience. Amazing!
The huge pontoon stage in Farm Cove, with orchestra and maestro Brian Castles-Onion inside and the backdrop of the city, the Bridge and the House, is not the most obviously sympathetic setting for an intimate love story. Nevertheless, it worked beautifully for the first – La Traviata, where Emma Matthews filled the night with willpower as well as her affinity with the role and descending to the stage by crane; and for Madama Butterfly in 2014 when Hyeseoung Kwon was a brilliant and heartbreaking Cho Cho San in a captivating performance.
No surprise: the pontoon was spectacularly exciting for Carmen (2017) and also for Turandot (2016) and Aida (2015) where grand parades, swirling crowd scenes and even a couple of camels – as well as fine singers – meant artistry and opera were never sacrificed. Not least because sound magician Tony David Cray performs miracles with the voices and instruments.
And this year it’s another intimate work La Boheme: the story of four young friends living the poor yet picturesque life in the bars and artists’ garrets of Paris. In this instance, the quartet also has to overcome the tyranny of distance – it’s an awfully big stage. Then the unique hurdles of an audience constantly distracted by merely “being there”; never mind passing ferries and party boats, flying foxes a-flapping, planes flashing red and white on their way to somewhere else; and on opening night, a helicopter hovering nearby on account of President Barack Obama being down the road at the Art Gallery of NSW. And it snows...really.
Nevertheless, Rodolfo (Ho-Yoon Chung), the bourgeois would-be writer, and working class seamstress Mimi (Iulia Maria Dan) make instant vocal and personal fireworks (reflected by the real ones, of course). While Rodolfo’s artist pal Marcello (Samuel Dundas) gives in to still being in love with cabaret artiste Musetta (Julie Lea Goodwin) and it makes for even more glorious singing.
Puccini used 19th century society as the backdrop and impetus for the drama and the love story – the bourgeois and the seamstress could never be allowed a happy ever after, Mimi had to die. (Not exactly a spoiler, if history and sexual politics have ever passed your nose.) So, it was exciting to see all the visual clues for an interesting updating.
Director Andy Morton and set designer Dan Potra have come up with Paris in 1968 – a neat anniversaire as Emmanuel Macron tries to figure out how to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the closest thing to another French Revolution the country’s ever faced. While the “poor” students live high above the city streets, the famous cobble stones are ripped up and piled in heaps ready to be hurled across the barricades at the gendarmerie. And, in the second act, a wrecked Renault and a sabotaged Citroen are craned in from on high. They symbolise the detritus of the powerful demonstrations that united workers and students and ricocheted across the world. No wonder Nicolas Sarkozy wanted to ignore all mention of 1968.
A puzzle and pity then, that Morton goes no further with the idea than the cobble stones and smouldering cars. It would have been so easy: the posters of protest are many and famous – Marcello could have made some, Rodolfo would surely have had them plastered all over his studio walls, never mind seeing them in the streetscape. Rather than whimsical projections of snowy rooftops and the Eiffel Tower on the vast studio skylight, footage of Dany the Red (student leader Daniel Cohn Bendit) and other iconic figures and events would have been stirring and intriguing. But no, the cobbles sit in mute piles and like an unused gun, make no dramatic sense.
The director must also take responsibility for the production’s technical flaws: clumsy and overlong scene changes and a bizarre highlighting of the vastness of the stage and the absence of Parisians in that emptiness by placing a few couples here and there in corners. Non, non, non!
In the end, however, conductor Brian Castles-Onion, leading the orchestra and singers, triumph over all. They give us Puccini’s luscious music in close to flawless fashion and the night and the harbour are a gift that keep on giving, no matter what. (Apparently Terracini has a direct line to the Hecatoncheires – the gods of violent storms – and they were astonishingly obliging in laying on dramatic cloud effects instead.)
Iulia Maria Dan (alternating with Maija Kovalevska) is a seriously fine Mimi, Julie Lea Goodwin is performing Musetta all on her own and is spectacularly good and a scene-stealer; Ho-Yoon Chung (alternate – Paul O’Neill) is even better than we know he can be, while Sam Dundas’s pairing with Goodwin is a true delight (Christopher Tonkin alternates).
Christopher Hillier and Richard Anderson are also noteworthy as the other bro pals, although the former looks disconcertingly like Tiny Tim with straggly long red hair and owl specs. The company is splendid and, as already mentioned, the orchestra constantly surprises in the way the constraints and problems are handled. La Boheme really is worth the hype for a great night out. Recommended.