Gale Edwards’ perennial production of Puccini’s La Bohème has become a fixture of Opera Australia’s Sydney summer season – we only missed out recently in 2018 when Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour filled the company’s Bohème quota – but an impressive house debut from Australian-Chinese tenor Kang Wang cut through the production’s familiarity to make this an exciting night.
Opera Australia’s La Boheme. Photos © Opera Australia
Moving the action from 1840s Paris to Weimar-era Berlin, Edwards’ production (presented here by Revival Director Liesel Badorrek), certainly stands up visually, thanks to Brian Thomson’s lavish sets and Julie Lynch’s detailed costuming, which serve to elucidate the characters of Puccini’s Bohemians as well as the social and political turbulence in which they struggle to create their art. While this new setting might throw up some distracting anachronisms, as my colleague Justine Nguyen put it last year, “the longevity of Edwards’ staging flows from its fine understanding of Puccini’s characters and their motivations, crafted with care and bearing many small touches that speak volumes”.
Karah Son and Kang Wang in Opera Australia’s La Bohème
These touches were deftly brought to life by Karah Son’s performance as the seamstress Mimì. The South Korean soprano has quickly become a regular at Opera Australia since her Australian debut in the Moffatt Oxenbould production of Madama Butterfly in Sydney in 2017, going on to impress in Graeme Murphy’s new production of the same opera last year as well as in Turandot in Melbourne. Hers is a powerful instrument, making for a steelier Mimì than tradition dictates, but this married well with Edwards’ concept – Mimì, for example, blows out her own candle in the first act, becoming as much the pursuer as Rodolfo in the pair’s meet cute, both perfectly capturing the sense of youthful playfulness required. Son’s steel paid dividends in the third act, her Mimì infused with a hardness – even a world-weariness – rather than simply wilting.
She was well matched vocally by Kang Wang, who brought a wonderfully dark-hued tenor to the poet Rodolfo. The Queensland trained Wang is a graduate of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program and was a finalist in the 2017 Cardiff Singer of the World competition, and – since his Met debut as Narraboth in Salome in 2016 – his career has very much been on the rise. He showed us why throughout this performance, unveiling a secure, beautifully even tone and a thrilling top register – his Che gelida manina was a showstopper.
Kang Wang, Michael Lampard, Samuel Dundas and Richard Anderson in Opera Australia’s La Bohème
This was a strong cast all round. Soprano Julie Lea Goodwin, who has performed Musetta for Opera Australia on land and sea, played – and sang – the role to the hilt (her set-piece performance of Musetta’s Waltz was a highlight), while baritone Samuel Dundas reprised his Marcello with passion and lyricism. Baritone Michael Lampard gave us a lively Schuanard, while bass Richard Anderson’s Coat Aria as Colline was sensitively articulated – despite an audience that sounded more tubercular than Puccini’s heroine – and Graeme Macfarlane reprised his comic role as the lecherous landlord Benoît to plenty of laughs.
Julie Lea Goodwin and Tom Hamilton in Opera Australia’s La Bohème
The Opera Australia Chorus and Children’s Chorus (whose repeated intrusions into the rather salacious Café Momus force its performers to cover up) were in fine form, as was the Opera Australia Orchestra. Conductor Carlo Goldstein led a lively rendition of the score, with the flutes in the act three opening a particularly beautiful moment.
In such a well-worn production, it’s the singers that make it work, and here Kang Wang’s Rodolfo was worth the price of admission alone – his career is one to watch.
Opera Australia’s La Boheme is at the Sydney Opera House until January 30