It’s hard to imagine a more compelling modernised version of La boheme than this startling production by Simon Phillips for Opera Queensland.
Circa 2005 our romantic early 19th century Parisian bohemians have become a bunch of scruffy student and arty-crafty types, living their intense and impoverished lives in the heart of a modern city.
The sets by designer Stephen Curtis are astonishing for a classic opera, Act One a split-level scenario with Rodolfo and his pals downstairs, a neat elderly couple in genteel comfort in a small flat above them, and a contemporary Mimi, midriff showing, coughing sadly and quietly in her tiny upstairs room.
Meanwhile the main players’ apartment displays the decadence and discomfort we would expect, with its grimy couch, messy sink, a cold expanse of louvres, archaic adjacent bathroom and imposing external fire-escape. Friends burst in like characters from, well, Friends or Kramer from Seinfeld. Schaunard has a pee, there’s much horseplay, and they set to to burn Rodolfo’s manuscript to stave off the cold. (He’s no doubt got a back-up on his presumably contraband laptop.)
Phillips has very cleverly choreographed the situation where Mimi (Nicole Youl) and Rodolfo (Bonaventura Bottone) meet in the midst of a sabotage-induced blackout. Well wrought also is the Cafe Momus scene, with a carnival market atmosphere similar to that frequently found on Southbank in shouting distance of QPAC.
And the difficult customs gate scene of Act Three is transformed into an ugly alleyway with garbage skips, streetpeople, early morning workers and security guards. The scene-closing blazing row between Marcello and Musetta is unforgettable, the highly-strung couple pelting each other with garbage and finally rolling in the falling snow as their passion switches to ardour, while Rodolfo and Mimi dreamily slip off into their re-emerging apartment.
The principals are in top form. They all give satisfactory dramatic performances and are vocally well balanced. Bottone and Youl give a convincing portrayal of the central pair of lovers, beautifully carrying off their famous Act One arias and duet one can well believe they are falling in love before our eyes as they lounge together on the floor by the fire and tell each other their stories. The statuesque and very watchable Lisa Harper-Brown is a fiery and commanding Musetta, bringing Act Two to life with her dramatic and flamboyant entrance. She is well-matched with Han Lim as a robust and energetic Marcello. Bass Jonathan Truscott gives Colline a suitably doleful aspect, his famous ode to his coat sung privately in the bathroom, while Jason Barry-Smith is an interestingly enigmatic Schaunard. True to the Friends ambience, there is more than a hint that he and Mimi have developed something in the midst of her on-again off-again relationship with Rodolfo.
Well conveyed are the friends’ feelings of anxiety and ultimately awkward helplessness at Mimi’s fatal illness. She dies on a beanbag in the midst of all the squalor, but in an atmosphere of genuine love and support.
In other roles, Ian Platt is a suitably vengeful landlord, Ian Cousins a baffled and harassed admirer and Geoffrey Ashenden a colorful toyman. Credit is also due to assistant director Cathy Dadd for her part in bringing the complex and thought-provoking direction to fruition, and Matt Scott for subtle and effective lighting.
Quibbles? With the contemporary and true-to-life feel conjured up by sets, costumes and direction, a more consistently youthful cast would have been a better fit: some of the horseplay is a little stilted, as if those past the first flush of youth are wary of sustaining injuries. A disadvantage of the multi-framed set of Act One is loss of concentration on the main action particularly when taking in surtitles as well as the three and sometimes more sets of performers. (Indeed, a better decision for this production would have been to run the show in English, minimising one of the sources of distraction.) Vertical shifting of the heavy two-floor apartment set is noisy, although not surprisingly so given the hydraulic challenges involved. In Act Two the pace doesn’t at first rise to the color and variety of sets and costumes (partly Puccini and his librettists’ fault), and the large cast seem physically constrained by the sets and props: but there is subsequently much amusing interplay among cafe customers during and beyond Musetta’s waltz song.
Meanwhile, conductor Peter Robinson produces a consistently strong and warm sound from the orchestra, and the Opera Queensland chorus, including children’s chorus, give of their best. Robinson gives a good introduction to the music, and Phillips an educational explanation of his direction, in the production’s program.