Mrs Macquaries Chair, Sydney
March 23, 2018

Opening night of this year’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour – Puccini’s La Bohème – narrowly missed the rain, but there’s a 100 per cent chance of snow in director Andy Morton’s made to measure new production of the ever-popular verismo opera, which moves the action from the Paris of the 1840s to that of the 1968 student revolt.

Chorus members in La Bohème. Photograph © Prudence Upton

Though this is his directorial debut with Opera Australia, Morton has worked on the last five Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour productions, and his familiarity with the format comes across in this in a Bohème that – hand in hand with Dan Potra’s set – is perhaps one of the most effective uses of the space we’ve seen. While Morton’s Bohème doesn’t draw the Sydney skyline into the concept in quite the same way Àlex Ollé’s Madama Butterfly did in 2014, the director nonetheless finds a beautiful balance between intimacy and grandeur on the frost-edged stage, in a neatly unified concept that incorporates animation (video designer Marco Devetak), fireworks and even live snow twinkling down onto performers and audience alike, while staying loyal to the opera’s traditions.

At the heart of this concept is Potra’s set, which sees a Parisian loft extrude from the centre of a larger streetscape. The loft – a tighter focal point against the wide-lensed view of Paris – is overhung with a vast skylight window on which 1960s retro-inspired animations play out everything from the weather to the inner thoughts of the characters. The effectiveness of the set-up is evident from the opening scene, where Parisians (sometimes with their dogs) walk the streets, before we hone in on the Bohemians, in a loft decked out with student furniture – an aging leather couch and a smaller red inflatable one. The two levels of the set make for some neat interactions between the inside and outside worlds.

John Bolton Wood, Richard Anderson, Christopher Hillier, Samuel Dundas and Ho-Yoon Chung. Photograph © Prudence Upton

As for the Bohemians themselves, the cast is largely made up of safe hands who’ve delivered for Opera Australia in the past, and they bring a nice sense of frolicking naivety to bear against the darker backdrop of social upheaval that sees the set littered with husks of cars – still burning, in places – by the time the audience returns from the interval.

Romanian Iulia Maria Dan (who sings alternate nights with Latvian soprano Maija Kovalevska) is a new face, however, bringing a lush soprano to Mimì, playing the role with a subtle self-possession flecked with a defiant playfulness that lingers even as her tubercular plotline progresses towards its inevitable conclusion. While supercharged sound in the first two acts on opening night (this was opera cranked all the way up to 11) flattened out some of the nuance of her Mi chiamano Mimì, the audience was treated to beautifully shaped vocal lines in the opera’s second half.

Australian soprano Julie Lea Goodwin makes a fiery but human Musetta – and she’s no stranger to the role with OA – arriving at Momus in a Police van, delivering her waltz with fierce energy and packing heat in the third act.

Julie Lea Goodwin and John Bolton Wood. Photograph © Prudence Upton

The poet Rodolfo is sung by Korean tenor Ho-Yoon Chung, who was Alfredo to Ermonela Jaho’s Violetta in Traviata last year, bringing a clear, yet complex, ringing sound to the role. He’s well-matched by baritone Samuel Dundas – another OA mainstay – as Marcello and their fourth act duet is beautifully rendered. Baritone Christopher Hillier, with 60s style tinted shades and larger than life charisma is the musician Schaunard.

Australian bass Richard Anderson is an old hand as the philosopher Colline, but though the final “Addio” of his Vecchia Zimara, Senti (the aria farewelling his favourite coat) was thick with emotion, his subtle performance (which works so magically in the Joan Sutherland Theatre) felt just a fraction too understated for the scale and distance of HOSH.

Baritone John Bolton Wood doubles as landlord Benoît and Musetta’s sugar daddy Alcindoro, bringing appropriate levels of indignant outrage and comedy to both.

Iulia Maria Dan and Ho-Yoon Chung. Photograph © Prudence Upton

While the intimate scenes and ensembles work effectively – backed up by conductor Brian Castles-Onion leading a solid Opera Australia Orchestra – Morton brings plenty of spectacle to the production too. Café Momus and the street outside bustle with colourful life – hula hoopists, street vendors and tumblers abound, and Parpignol floats in from above suspended by festive balloons – and the Opera Australia Chorus put in a fine turn.

Glitz and glamour is the name of the game when it comes to Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour – and there’s more than enough to go around – but Morton’s La Bohème manages to skillfully draw the moments that make this opera special from the larger extravaganza, and despite the epic-scale he wrings from it a satisfying emotional pay-off.