The cast of La boheme | Joan Sutherland Theatre

Henri Murger was by no means a conventional man. By no means did he write a conventional novel. In fact, when, in 1851, he wrote La Vie de Boheme, he was, in a way, wittingly or otherwise, exemplifying the bohemian life that he took as his subject. Certainly, he couldn’t possibly have imagined his rather disparate anthology of stories would prove such an inspiration for so many other writers and composers. And not only was Murger something of a bohemian and messiah for artists that followed, he was a very naughty boy, basing many of his playful tales on contemporaries, including himself.

The few of you not afflicted with short-term memory loss may recall we reviewed Gale Edwards’ production for Opera Australia twice last year: the Melbourne opening and the Sydney season. It’s still lavish; many thanks to Brian Thomson’s palette of rich scarlet and gold which can only proclaim decadence. Julie Lynch picks up where he leaves off, with revealing, suggestive costumes that shout licentiousness just as loudly. John Rayment’s precise lighting completes a beautiful, cinematic picture (why even the drape of the scarlet curtain concealing what’s to come, with the opera’s title spelt out with subdued incandescent bulbs is very Baz Luhrmann).

But it’s Edwards that seems to channel the spirit of Murger, in her mischievousness. In transposing Puccini’s opera from the Latin Quarter of 1840s Paris to 1930s Berlin, the work takes on the guise of sociopolitical menace, only but adding to the star-crossed tragic tryst ‘tween Rodolfo, the distracted poet, and Mimi, the naive seamstress. In fact, their doomed relationship becomes emblematic of the death of culture and freedom so effectively and dramatically achieved during the Third Reich.

To begin with, the attentive will be rewarded, though, by the dynamic intensity and kinetic aesthetic just below the stage, where conductor Christian Badea wields the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra as his solo instrument. Even by its customarily sensational standards, I doubt I’ve ever heard it sounding quite so unified and responsive, across all four acts of this magnificent melodrama.

Gianluca Terranova may not be the world’s greatest actor (though you certainly know he’s on stage, as he radiates charisma), but he’s surely one of the best lyric tenors on the face of the earth. His top-end mellifluousness is as melting as the customary airlessness of the Joan Sutherland Theatre. Better yet, he not only communicates emotion as one would expect from an Italian, but offers superb control throughout his considerable range — especially so in the upper register. And he took considerably less time than a 1977 Alfa Romeo Spider with twin Webers to warm-up. But while the exhaust note from a pedigreed boxer engine may be agreeably invigorating, the power of Terranova’s tenor is almost astonishing; it’s no great exaggeration to say, in a Pavarotti kind of way.

Terranova is, of course, Rodolfo, and could hardly have a better best mate, vocally, or any other way, than the versatile, genre-bridging Samuel Dundas as Marcello, the painter, who looks and sounds every bit the part (even if I’m not very big on his Red Sea mural). Shane Lowrencev gives a characterful, colourful, generous, adorably high-camp performance as Schaunard, a musician and confidant of Rodolfo and Marcello, who together inhabit a kind of starving, artistic cabal with Colline, a philosopher (David Parkin). Unfortunately, as pleasing as Lowrencev’s pipes may be, they don’t carry nearly as well as those surrounding him, much of the time, in direct contrast to Parkin’s booming thrall. As an ensemble, however, these young men are most persuasive as bromantic soulmates.

John Bolton Wood (the bolted-on Bolton is, clearly, vital, lest he be mistaken for a Blue Heeler) gives good landlord as the buffoonish Benoit.

Lorina Gore, in her debut as Musetta, has a number of very big vocal moments and tends to command the utmost attention whenever she’s on stage. Theatrically she’s brilliant and this role is probably the best advertisement yet for the glorious quality of her coloratura soprano, the polar opposite of her wounded lover Marcello’s estimation of the state of Musetta’s heart, which he describes as a giant icebox. Her stature grows by leaps and bounds.

In many ways, I’m saving the best till last. Nicole Car’s Mimi gives no quarter to any other performer. Her soaring soprano nails every note to the arched ceiling of the opera theatre. At first, I wondered about Mimi’s persistent smiling through thick and thin (but mainly thin). I mean, a brave face is one thing, but equanimity in the face of destitution is martyrdom. I suspect, however, there may be a subtle method in Edwards’ madness here: if we substitute Mimi, in the director’s pre-war vision, for the martyrdom of decency and culture, then her beaming, pretty face is deliberately personified as angelic; Car’s voice archangelic.

Comparisons are odious, so I won’t embark on debating the relative merits of, say, Car, against Chicagoan Takesha Meshe Kizart in the same role last year. Nor shall I deign to pit Terranova’s against the charms of South Korea’s Ji-Min Park. Suffice to say, the current line-up, while not entirely consistent or even, has so much in its own right and favour, there’ll be no sense of loss. On the contrary, attendees of this inspired production have everything to gain.

My only caveat pertains to the mundane. We shouldn’t even have to discuss it. The airconditioning of Sydney’s opera theatre is a misnomer. Firstly, it’s bordering on slanderous to suggest the Sydney Opera House engineers, or their operatives, are injecting any air. There’s no evidence, by way of oxygen, to support this assertion. Nor is the pre-existing air conditioned, if conditioning equates to cooling. Given the elderly skew of opera crowds, particularly amidst a massive, national demographic bias in that direction, it’s puzzling as to why Sydney Opera House management would be engaged in a plot to assassinate, en masse, the company’s patrons.

I can only but suggest the Joan Sutherland Theatre come to resemble its Concert Hall kissing cousin: but instead of transparent acoustical donuts, let’s have masks drop from the ceiling, to keep us fully awake and alive. Airconditioning is, apparently, so passé.

The details: La boheme plays the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House until March 23. Tickets on the company website.

Nicole Car and Gianluca Terranova in La boheme | Joan Sutherland Theatre

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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