Puccini’s La Boheme is one of the most beloved operas in the repertoire, and Adelaide based company Co-Opera’s production of it was greeted with a packed audience at Canberra’s Street Theatre on Tuesday night. La Boheme follows the lives of young bohemians Marcello and Rodolfo and their friends over the course of a year, with the story unfolding at their threadbare lodgings and the licentious Café Momus. The women they fall in love with dominate the men’s lives; writer Rodolfo (a dignified Ernst Ens) is smitten with the consumptive Mimi (ethereal Sara Lambert) from their first meeting, while Marcello (Nicholas Cannon) lusts after the coquettish Musetta (Lynette Harris).
First-time opera director Nick Carroll, who has previously worked as a choreographer for the 2007 Co-Opera production of Kiss Me Kate, explained in his director’s notes that he wanted to depict the characters as rebellious sensualists, noting ‘every generation has its share of bohemians’ to justify his choice to present an ‘era-free production’. With both aims, he is not entirely successful. In the first act, the joie de vivre and sense of reckless abandon one would expect from a group of creative lads-about-town is absent, with Gerard Schneider as the landlord Benoit injecting much needed vitality into a slow moving exposition. The sometimes forced sense of gaiety may be attributed to Carroll’s choice to cast older actors in these parts, though emerging singer James Moffatt also makes for a hesitant Schaunard. The cramped set and costumes reflect Carroll’s desire not to definitively contextualise the performance, however the contradictory elements do not create a coherent, believable world for the characters to inhabit.
The singers were ably supported by a ten piece orchestra, confidently conducted by musical director Brian Chatterton. In keeping with Co-Opera’s policy of largely singing all songs in English for the sake of accessibility, only four of La Boheme’s arias were sung in the original Italian. This is a great pity, as the four arias performed in Italian, including Musetta’s Waltz and Mimi’s swan song Donde lieta, were the most warmly received by the audience.
The first act of the opera improved greatly upon Mimi’s entrance, who knocks on the door of the men’s house after locking herself out of her home. Lambert and Ens have a tender chemistry, and their arias Che gelida manina and Si, Mi Chiamano Mimi were two of the musical highlights of the night.
The second act takes place at Café Momus and introduces us to Marcello’s love Musetta (depicted as an ageing cougar by Lynette Harris) and her “sugar daddy” lover Alcindoro (an appealing Ian Muster). During this sequence, performers broke the fourth wall, with the party spilling from the stage to the audience as onlookers were flirted with and encouraged to dance with the cast. The enthusiastic audience enjoyed this; however, the constant bringing up and down of the house lights to facilitate this interaction became distracting.
The final half of the opera took on a more sombre tone, with Rodolfo wracked with guilt at not being able to afford to provide medicine for the rapidly deteriorating Mimi. The two performers did a fine job of depicting the jealousy and obsession of a couple deeply in love. Unfortunately, the potentially heart-rending moments of their doomed love story were spoiled by the unsubtle lighting design by Nic Mollison, as lighting states that were intended to mimic the characters emotions felt contrived, and detracted from the emotional heart of the piece.
The production’s poster bills La Boheme as “the greatest love story of all time”, but Co-Opera’s production feels strangely passionless, and was marred by moments that suggested the need for more rehearsal (such as the stage manager being visible to the audience as he motioned to the conductor to commence the second act). Strong singing and enjoyable broad physical comedy rescued the opera from its weaker elements, in what is undoubtedly a very accessible interpretation of Puccini’s work that will appeal to broad audiences on the production’s tour of mainland Australia.
The Street Theatre and Co-Opera present
Directed by Nick Carroll
Venue: The Street Theatre, Childers St Canberra City West
Dates: Tuesday April 20 & Wednesday April 21 @ 7.30pm, 2010
Tickets: Standard $35, Concession $32, Group 4+ $29, Student $20
Bookings: 6247 1223 | www.thestreet.org.au
Sung in English