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Into the world of the exotic

State Theatre
05/03/2016 -  & May, 5, 10, 12, 14, 17, 19, 21, 2016
Giacomo Puccini : La bohème
Gianluca Terranova (Rodolfo), Andrew Jones (Marcello), Richard Anderson (Colline), Shane Lowrencev (Schaunard), Graeme Macfarlane (Benoit), Lianna Haroutourian (Mimì), Jane Ede (Musetta), Adrian Tamburini (Alcindoro), Benjamin Rasheed (Parpignol), Clifford Plumpton (Customs Officer), Malcolm Ede (Customs Seargeant)
Opera Australia Chorus, Anthony Hunt (Chorus Master), Opera Australia Children’s Chorus, Thomas Johnson (Chorus Master), Orchestra Victoria, Yi Wang (Concertmaster), Andrea Molino (Conductor)
Gale Edwards (Director), Brian Thomson (Set Designer), Julie Lynch (Costume Designer), John Rayment (Lighting Designer)

(© Jeff Busby)

Celebrating sixty years of productions, Opera Australia chose a revival of Gale Edwards’ production of La bohème to open its 2016 Melbourne Season. A guaranteed crowd-pleaser, it drew a diverse capacity audience who were effusive in their appreciation. It is promising to see a company in fine shape; attracting new, young audiences and revealing assurance and trust in the quality of their productions. In this riotously colourful production, Opera Australia delivers self-confidence and poise with aplomb.

Gale Edwards’ interpretation brings the action into a world which might be Berlin in the 1930’s. It is a place where sexual freedom, exotic misbehaviours, poverty and art sit side-by-side with the fashionable and the bourgeois. There are elements of the Spiegeltent in the setting by Brian Thomson, with a huge facetted roof covering a circus-like floor and Marcello daubing his paintings around the walls. In the third act, we see elements of the oppression which would soon sweep Germany and Europe as the army uniformed Customs agents issue passes operating their bureaucratic checkpoints. It is the second act when the set sprouts glittering balconies that we see the real potential of the interpretation as Musetta takes up her role as the prime attraction at the “hot-spot” cabaret Café Momus. The club is as outrageous as the times in which it is set. Bare-breasted temptresses hang from the balconies while the well-heeled middle classes mix with flamboyant same-sex couples flaunting their lifestyle and lack of inhibition.

The overall interpretation encourages us to believe that the “boys” are playing at being poor as a preferred alternative to doing a day’s work. They enjoy the liberty, excesses and exoticism of their lifestyle. Rodolfo too easily throws away the script to his play to feed the fire and Marcello is almost as willing to sacrifice his paintings just to keep the “game” of living the Bohemian life, going.

Into this world of self-imposed “designer poverty” Mimi comes as a touching glimpse of the realities of life beyond the call of poetry, philosophy and art. She is a real working girl who has little option other than to sew to earn her meagre wage. And it is not long before she too has accepted that selling herself is the nearest thing to certainty of survival that she is likely to achieve. Musetta is a glamourous example to her of how even in poor times, a girl can take care of herself and rise to a position when she can call the shots.

Italian tenor Gianluca Terranova has performed for Opera Australia many times and achieved a high standard in his roles. His voice is vibrant and ringing in the upper register and he delivered a very well received “Che gelida manina” in Act One. His upper register is easy and light but was once or twice dominated by Ms Haroutourian’s Mimi. In the duet with Marcello, his voice shone producing a beautifully paired sound and an effortless interpretation.

As Mimi, Armenian soprano Lianna Haroutourian gave a touching and commanding performance. Her voice is a big instrument and she used it with great variety of effect. In ensemble pieces, she held back but in her solos, most notably in “Si mi chiamano Mimi”, the audience could be in no doubt as to the passion and pathos she feels for this role which she has given in so many other places. Her performance was well-received, attracting sustained applause and calls.

Jane Ede’s Musetta is as unpredictable as she is dangerous to know. She has all the other characters in her thrall; playing up to her as often as dodging her violent temper. It comes as something of a surprise then when her hardened exterior cracks and she offers her jewellery for sale to help Mimi in the final act. Ms Ede has performed many characters for Opera Australia and has many times shown herself to thrive in this flamboyant and extravagant type of role.

Of the men, Andrew Jones’ Marcello has to be the most compelling performance of the evening. We have often seen Mr Jones’ acting skills match his vocal talents but here, he brought a real sense of one “on the edge” throughout the opera. The surety of his vocal line and the ease with which he commands the stage are assets he exploited to great effect. This character became not just “one of the boys” but a rounded person whose frailties and emotions we came to know well by the time he collapsed in tears at the death of Mimi.

The Opera Australia chorus began its Melbourne season with a strong performance as did Orchestra Victoria under Italian composer and conductor Andrea Molina. Maestro Molino’s work for this company has been varied and exemplary over recent seasons.

As a season opener, this production was certain to appeal to popular taste. It is an assertive show which augurs well for operas still to be given later in the season.

Gregory Pritchard



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