Directed by Gale Edwards
Conducted by Carlo Montanaro
Joan Sutherland Theatre
The Opera House, Bennelong Point
Season (see website for exact performance dates): 2 January – 23 March
We know that an artist has struck a chord when subtly didactic tale maintains its relevance hundreds of years on. Puccini’s compositions, alongside Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa’s libretto in La Bohème speaks to a human fascination with beautiful facades and the tension between perceived and actual human freedom. In pursuing the elusive and elevated artistic freedom, what do we risk? And is this pursuit ultimately fulfilling? Gale Edwards’s production of the opera highlights the dire consequences for hedonistic pursuits at the cost of sincere reflection about the quality of society in which we reside and stand to shape.
La Bohème is a cautionary tale fraught with passion and turmoil, given voice through Puccini’s artful opera. The curtain opens on artists Rodolfo and Marcello, and details the fledgling relationship of Rodolfo and Mimi, who suffers from consumption, as well as the tempestuous relationship of Marcello and Musetta. Puccini’s songs are performed in the original Italian, and the opera singers sound articulate and elegant in this foreign tongue for many. Originally La Bohème was set in Paris, in the period prior to the Revolution. However, director Gale Edwards reappropriated the setting for greater contemporary resonance, shifting the story to the Weimar period in Berlin, in between the World Wars. Weimar was a time of great frivolity and social liberation, where art and freedom of expression thrived, akin to pre-revolutionary Paris. I think this is an insightful historical parallel drawn, as a period of oppression casts a smouldering shadow over the social freedoms, including Robespierre’s ‘Reign of Terror’ and Hitler’s Nazi Regime, respectively. Wherever there is hedonistic endeavour, darkness never seems to be far away.
Mimi speaks of the beautiful flowers that she produces, yet have no scent. In some sense, this harks to the shimmering appearance of the social paradigm and yet the grittier reality that lurks beneath. Puccini seems to continually warn us of a thing that is beguiling by its beauty cannot fulfil its promise of satisfaction. Similarly, we see this in the contrasting of two relationships – Mimi and Rodolfo, and Marcello and Musetta. A clever device is used to highlight Mimi and Rodolfo’s loving relationship, where loss is mourned as the relationship senses its close - held up against Marcello and Musetta’s more mature relationship ravaged with violence and anger. Marcello justifies possessive and aggressive behaviour by his claims that Musetta is too flirtatious – an attitude akin with domestic violence and gendered power structures in our society, and hence a theme that unfortunately persists in our contemporary age. This device is overall suggestive of what may have ensued for Mimi and Rodolfo had they been in a relationship for longer – a bleak, yet likely realistic, outlook.
The costuming and set design, by Julie Lynch and Brian Thomson respectively, is opulent and glamorous during the sunnier periods, and yet transforms into a dilapidated shadow of its prior grandeur when oppressive regimes take over, prevailing somewhat as a consequence of solely hedonistic pursuits. The audience sees the evolution of Mimi and Rodolfo’s environment, and socio-political context, which feeds crucially into their development as individuals and their relationship as a whole.
While I warmly embrace the art of opera, I certainly do not have an operatic background. Consequently, I relish the performance of grand arias that have permeated the cultural fabric of society and so are unwittingly familiar to me. La Bohème is a story I have been acquainted with through derivative storylines, such as in the musical ‘Rent’. However I was a little surprised that I didn’t recognise any of the music, nor did I experience an emotional ‘high’ to any one song, as sometimes occurs in the grandest of arias. Yet, my personal response to the music came in the physicality and emotion expressed through song, as well as in Edwards’ conceptual vision. Natalie Aroyan, playing Mimi, expresses a benevolent sweetness in her performance, further encompassed in her soprano notes. This seems to heighten the reaction to her downfall, as the systemic and societal issues are emphasised in contrast to her originally blameless character, and devoted love for Rodolfo. Yosep Kang as Rodolfo shines brightest in the final moments of the opera, when Mimi’s downfall finally occurs, and expressing deep devastation. Lorina Gore as Musetta is also a highlight, amply conveying both the glitzy sex appeal and the tainted core of the era, as well as grabbing attention in some of the more showy sections of song.
Perhaps history is cyclic in the way that periods of extreme artistic and social freedom can be followed by intensely oppressive regimes. Perhaps we never learn. It seems that Edwards’ production of La Bohème taps into these historical and social insights to add layer upon layer to Puccini’s opera. Obviously in its international acclaim and breadth of productions staged, Puccini’s music continues to speak to audiences around the world in an evocative way. This directorial interpretation only heightens its richness.