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Review: La Bohème at the Sydney Opera House

Review by Isabella Olsson

Opera Australia opens their 2020 season with a production of the Italian opera classic La Bohème, composed by Giacomo Puccini and with a libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. This classic love story follows the tribulations of two sets of couples over the course of a year as they are confronted by sickness, jealousy, and the struggles of poverty. Originally performed in 1896, this production (directed by Gale Edwards) relocates the titular bohemian artists from the Latin Quarter of Paris in the 19th century to early 1930s Berlin, during the decline of the Weimar Republic. An admirable production with a phenomenal cast and orchestra, Opera Australia’s La Bohème is a crowd-pleasing delight.

The absolute stand out of the show is, of course, the music. Conductors Carlo Goldstein and Tahu Matheson lead an impressive orchestra who remain tight and expressive throughout the marathon two and a half hour runtime. The ensemble pieces are enormously fun and vibrant, providing a smorgasbord of musical and visual stimulation for the audience to feast on. The real highlights, though, are the spectacular and moving voices of the lead cast. Kang Yang (rotating with Ji-Min Park) as Rodolfo is particularly notable, with a breathtaking tenor voice that resonates in the Joan Sutherland theatre. His duets with stellar soprano Karah Son (rotating with Valeria Sepe) as Mimi were audience favourites, with one particularly impressed patron shouting “Brava!” at the conclusion of Act III’s beautiful Addio di Mimi.

The production suffered a little from its slow pace, particularly in the first Act which feels a little stilted and laboured. It is Act II and particularly Julie Lea Goodwin’s performance as Musetta that invigorates the show and gives it momentum that carries through to the second half. Goodwin’s rendition of Musetta’s Waltz is sultry and captivating, and her chemistry with the hugely enjoyable Samuel Dundas as Marcello is ultra-compelling – their duets are some of the most lively and engaging parts of the show. Their face off in Act II’s burlesque-inspired Café Momo is a delight to watch, enhanced by a sharp and entertaining ensemble and a vibrant and exciting set that feels right out of Moulin Rouge.

Director Gale Edwards has moved the original story of La Bohème to early 1930s Berlin, using the hedonistic extravagance of the era and social upheaval as a foil against the poverty of the characters. Unfortunately, the concept doesn’t quite hit the mark – while the scene in Café Momo is bolstered by its flapper-inspired context, the other scenes feel under baked. The Act I and IV sets are vacuous and feel out of time, and while Act III is marginally influenced by the militaristic, extremist politics of the time, this take isn’t developed beyond the superficial and as a result feels a little tacked on. The set design by Brian Thomson does, however, very successfully capture the vivid sense of freezing cold and poverty of the piece, with lighting design by John Rayment playing beautifully with some of the more experimental features of the set to accentuate this feeling.

As a narrative, La Bohème is undeniably melodramatic and a cultural product of its time, and it is somewhat inevitable that audiences will be alienated to a degree by the sheer nature of the story. The appeal of the show therefore lies less so in its content and much more so in its delivery – it is the score, the orchestra, and the astonishing voices of the incredibly talented cast that make this performance an enjoyable and occasionally moving night at the theatre. La Bohème has been performed countless times and will, I’m sure, remain an opera staple for decades to come, so it is perhaps too much to demand originality and freshness from this production; but in terms of quality of performance and pure craftsmanship from its creatives, Opera Australia certainly delivers. 

La Bohème is showing at the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House until January 30.

Image Credit: Prudence Upton

All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.


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