Melbourne, 20 November 2018
An interesting but not trouble-free evening at the Arts Centre for the virtually indestructible La Bohème. Pointlessly but harmlessly ‘re-imagined’ (by director Gale Edwards) to Berlin in the last days of the Weimar Republic, 100 years after the work is actually set, and not in Paris (the cast still sing incongruously in Italian – why not stage it in Rome and replace Benoit with Mussolini?). Sets were appropriately stark (the garret – it still looked like a garret to us, and the tollgate, replete with pretty and lethal snow falling outside) and lush (the Café Momus, looking more like the Folies Bergère than Cabaret, in an ‘AO’ scene possibly designed for chaps arriving late from the races) and most of the cast were in fine form. There’s no flat spot in this work, and whilst the story is close to the purest sentimental trash, what trash it is! The Higher Trash, in fact, and better than most works of Art.
Conductor Pietro Rizzo helped Orchestra Victoria bring out all the creaminess of the score, Puccini’s various musical flourishes well interspersed so as to complement the singing. It has been noted that his Bel canto can be difficult to sing, often reaching points of white-hot intensity that it can be more of a strain than much in, say, Wagner, which tends to be more deliberately-paced. Alas, so it proved this night, when South Korean tenor Yosep Kang, obviously most comfortable in the middle register, showed signs of breaking down in Act I, during the great love duet with Mimi, O soave fanciulla. Kang creaked, and laboured, and we feared for him, but he manfully avoided disaster and closed-out the wonderful conclusion to the Act. But after the interval, Lyndon Terracini (no less)* came out to explain that Kang had retired hurt and a replacement – whose name we are still endeavouring to ascertain – would carry on as Rodolfo. (Already Tom Hamilton had replaced the first choice for the minor character Alcindoro). Thus another fellow from the interchange bench rose, and would provide the haunting O Mimì, tu più non torni and seek to persuade us that after splitting-up with Mimi, he was a changed man. The voice was a tad weaker but entirely adequate, and worthy of the warm applause he received at finale for a true trouper’s effort.
The stand-outs on the night were Latvian soprano Maija Kovalevska as Mimì, baritone Christopher Tonkin as Marcello and Soprano Jane Ede as Musetta – they were all very fine and strong of voice and whilst the roles don’t require much nuance, they do call for natural playing and a touch of charm, which they provided. Richard Anderson, a plangent bass, was also a stout Colline (looking with his full beard like Durin in Moria).
In sum, a pleasant and moving, conservative production, that is free from too-much tinkering, and which paid entertaining and apposite homage to one of Opera’s pillars.