Lyndon Terracini was like an expectant father when Crikey spoke to him days before the opening of La bohème. Eighteen months after taking the reins of Opera Australia, this was the artistic director’s first real chance to shape the distinctive aesthetic on stage he’s talked about, overseeing casting and working with director Gale Edwards on an all-new production.

What’s more, he’s aware more than anyone of the importance of this show. Opera companies live and die by the classics — bohème is in the top few most-performed operas in the world — and new productions come at considerable financial and artistic risk. Some 40 performances have been scheduled, in Melbourne and later in Sydney, this year alone.

He needn’t have worried. The company took the bohemians to the bank on opening night. This will be as much a commercial success as it is an artistic triumph. The creative decisions made in updating Giacomo Puccini’s masterpiece are almost all inspired, creating a worthy operatic adaptation and a fabulous piece of entertainment at once.

Terracini describes the opera experience as a series of remarkable moments for an audience. Edwards’ production delivers a least two. The first, in act one, is Rodolfo’s aria Che gelida manina. In the right tenor’s hands — Luciano Pavarotti wasn’t half-bad — it soars; the top C lifting the audience out of their seats as the young writer courts his shy seamstress. Korean Ji-Min Park nailed it. Not surprisingly, of course; he’s one of the finest younger singers in the world. But a flawless delivery and real emotional intensity makes his appearance a pleasure for Australian audience.

In an inevitable comparison, Takesha Meshé Kizart’s following aria, Sì, mi chiamano Mimì, starts shakily. But the American soprano recovers to prove her international star power. Both leads, their inter-racial romance, imbue the exuberant bohemian spirit, of young hearts unbridled by the weight of the world. And that impending weight — set in pre-war 1930s Berlin rather than Paris in the 1800s — shadows ominously.

The other moment came in act two. Edwards takes us from a Parisian cafe in Puccini’s original to a bawdy Berlin nightclub, complete with suspender-clad topless courtesans (mute, what’s more; purely for aesthetic value). Brian Thomson’s set transforms before our eyes into the dazzlingly lit, multileveled palace. The scene is everything we’ve come, however unfairly, to expect of an opera such as this: crowded with performers, all sumptuously costumed, in an exceptionally choreographed routine. It didn’t get any better than this, but it didn’t have to. Terracini has every reason to be proud.

The details: La bohème is on tonight and for seven more performances at the State Theatre in Melbourne. It moves to Sydney for 30 performances opening on July 12. Tickets on the company website.

Peter Fray

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