Wednesday 13 November 2019

La Boheme - Opera Review

What: La Boheme
When: 12 - 21 November 2019
Where: Wesley Ann
Composed by: Giacomo Puccini
Libretto by: Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica
Directed by: Kate Millett
Conducted by: Joseph Hie
Performed by: Andrew Alesi, Jordan Auld, Pam Christie, Belinda Dalton, Daniel Felton,Alicia Groves, Dominique Musico, James Sybren Penn, and Peter Tregear
James Sybren Penn, Belinda Dalton, Daniel Felton, Peter Tregear and Andrew Alesi
La Boheme is one of the favourite operas of the 20th century, filling opera houses across the last century and well into this one as well. BK Opera bring us the pub version this month at the Wesley Anne in Northcote and I have to say after seeing it this way I can't imagine ever wanting to see it in a proper opera house ever again. The local pub really is the natural home for this tale of bohemian camaraderie.

Puccini's La Boheme is based on a series of stories which became a novel and then later a play by Henry Murger - Scènes de la vie de bohème (also the inspiration for Rent). The original text is a series of stories which follow the escapades of a group of poverty stricken bohemians who called themselves 'the water drinkers' because they were too poor to afford wine.

Relating to these stories through his own life during his poverty stricken student days (the one herring between four moment in the opera came from his own life experience), Puccini took several characters from the book, and the structure of acts 1 and 4 from the play and filled in the rest. What he ended up with is a funny and feisty romp which ends in tragedy as the heroine dies a long, painful death through respiratory disease (as is the fate of so many women in opera tales).

Millett (director) has taken this story and really brings into focus the absurdity of the myth that poverty is the artist's muse by placing this group of ever optimistic friends in a local pub to drink and laugh and play and die amongst us ordinary folk. This is even more appropriate given that Puccini was just on the verge of entering his verisimo period and what BK Opera highlight in this production is that transitional edge from romanticism (the declamatory style and highly emotional singing) into realism (with the everyday dress and humble surrounds).

La Boheme relies on energy to work and Hie (conductor) keeps the singers rollicking along at an exciting pace which allows the comedy to really punch. I have to say that Christie's work on an old and battered baby grand piano is quite magnificent too, keeping pace with the performance yet bringing to life the famous beauty and nuance of Puccini's composition.

Watching this ensemble perform is like watching a high octane episode of Friends. Dalton (Mimi) is an entrancing soprano with an ability to act which many a fully trained actor would envy. Finally I saw a death scene which didn't make me cringe!

Auld (Musetta) is an incredibly powerful soprano and is such delightful comic relief in this production. With a stage full of tenors and baritones Auld could easily get lost, but there is no chance of that with her strong vocals and brilliantly outrageous costumes.

The real story of La Boheme is the camaraderie between the men and the family they create between themselves to get through their hard life of creativity, dilitance, and unrelenting poverty. With the previous BK Opera shows I have reviewed (A Night of Gluck Operas and Bluebeard's Castle) Penn has been conducting but for this season he steps onto the stage to sing Rudolfo.

Penn has an incredibly powerful voice definitely trained for the big opera houses and his acting, whilst lacking in realism, is bold and clear. I suspect he is not too accustomed to working in such intimate proximity with the audience. His singing is sublime though - especially his drunk singing - and I really wanted more typing (when have you ever heard anyone say that?) although he does need to learn which way the paper goes in...

It's a tough task, but his entourage (Alesi, Felton, and Tregear) keep up with him vocally and spiritedly. I admit the quintet at Cafe Momus was my favourite moment of the night although there are so many good times in this opera that was a hard choice to make. Even Musico, who had a non-speaking role as a waitress, was feisty and owned her moments on stage!

I was less convinced about the casting of Groves as the landlord and the old gentleman. There was no value to be had in shifting the gender and the roles are written for a bass. In fact it was confusing to have those characters as female and Groves struggled vocally. It didn't help that the surtitles weren't working well and it was hard to keep up with who she was playing.

What I am trying to say is this production of La Boheme is a blast. Grab a hot toddy, pull up a pew and have a rollicking good time at the Wesley Anne. The show is chock full of drinking songs and bonhomie despite the sad ending. In these times of high unemployment and unaffordable cost of living this 19th century tale is as true for millennial Australia as it was for Parisian beatniks of the past.

4 Stars

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