Striking singers, senseless setting

LA BOHEME

Opera Australia

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne

Tuesday May 3, 2016

Lianna Haroutounian
Lianna Haroutourian

Not a new production, this offering from director Gale Edwards, revival director Andy Morton, set designer Brian Thomson and costume designer Julie Lynch – but of a piece with the company’s Autumn season pattern in that it updates and transposes the work’s action, as the following The Pearl Fishers and Luisa Miller will also do.   For all the distractions that these peripheral changes involve, this current version of Puccini’s touching score has a significant benefit where it counts: the voices of those involved onstage.   After some underwhelming principal line-ups in previous years, it came as a pleasant shock to hear an Act 1 that succeeded in engaging the inner musician in each member of the opening night audience.  Well, perhaps that’s being over-optimistic but, for those of us who were listening for quality, a good deal was there to be enjoyed.

Gianluca Terranova is a new voice to me but a welcome one.  His work as Rodolfo proved exceptional, not so much for insights into the character himself (are there any, apart from the furious confession of Act 3?) but simply for the fierce temper of his tenor which invested the line with vigour and a continual ardour.  Like most of his tribe, Terranova is no respecter of bar-lines when in full uninterrupted flight, so that Che gelida manina enjoyed a fluidity that a conductor more prickly than Andrea Molino would have brought into line, yet the travelling power of his top notes and their almost-total security swept aside a good deal of trivial nit-picking . . . like gripes about keeping in time.

A match for the tenor, Lianna Haroutourian sang a dedicated Mimi with a splendid carrying power not held back by the character’s racking consumption.  Her Si, mi chianamo Mimi matched Terranova’s opening aria with a soaring ma quando ven lo sgelo sequence and her following collaboration in O soave fanciulla demonstrated a responsiveness that front-lined the composer’s melodic spacious lyric arcs as well as giving weight to the lightly-sprung dialogue to which this rhapsody momentarily descends.   Haroutourian even put up with her partner’s brashness in seconding the Act-ending high C that, for once, stayed on pitch, although this magic moment’s effectiveness was squashed, as usual, by over-anxious patrons drowning out the delicacy of Puccini’s orchestration across the last bars, harp harmonics and all.

The lovers’ confrontation in Act 3 proved less persuasive dramatically but you would be hard pressed to fault the desperation of Terranova’s Marcello. Finalmente! duet with Andrew Jones.   Later, after Haroutourian set up an excellent framework with Donde lieta usci, the tenor found it hard to convey Rodolfo’s grief through the Addio dolce svegliare alla mattina! quartet, compensating for it with a determined O Mimi, tu piu non torni duet to open the last act, then wringing the death scene for as much tragedy as a jaundiced audience would find credible; that final curtain came down in silence.

Jane Ede’s Musetta carried out her responsibilities with moderate brio, the Quando m’en vo’ showpiece carefully delineated.   But you were rarely convinced of Musetta’s humour and brightness of personality; not even in the name-calling fight with Marcello at Act 3’s end, although Ede made a concerned, condoling figure at Mimi’s deathbed.   Jones, her counterpart, made a much more interesting fist of the jealous painter, working with professional ease through the romping that starts the outer acts and contributing a strong vocal presence in his duet with Mimi  at the Barriere d’Enfer toll-gate.

Richard Anderson relished his one chance to shine, Colline’s Vecchia zimarra aria, taken at a lugubrious pace, emphasizing the philosopher’s gravity rather than the ludicrous charity that he is exercising.    Graeme Macfarlane’s landlord Benoit and Adrian Tamburini’s Alcindoro fulfilled their obligations without striking any notes of originality.   But the children’s chorus for the Cafe Momus scene sounded as confrontational a pack of ragamuffins as you’d want to avoid on a dark night while the adult chorus gave a vocally colourful backdrop to the principal sextet in the same act.

The setting has been moved to 1930s Berlin.  You can tell this by a few black uniforms, a customs official dressed like the Fuhrer himself, some cross-dressing attendants on Shane Lowrencev’s Schaunard, and the Momus establishment turning into a quasi-brothel/cabaret scene with a plethora of loges, at least one pair of bare breasts for ornamentation, an outbreak of garter belts, a band of ersatz Hitlerjugend coming on for the act’s final military blaze.   The changes in time and locale make no difference to the outer acts in the artists’ garret, the opera’s core action arenas.   Further to this puzzlement, at night’s end, you are left wondering exactly what correspondances are intended to exist between this Baz Luhrmann-redolent refreshment essay and the original’s Parisian Latin Quarter of a century before.

Orchestra Victoria responded well to Molino across the night, with a particularly keen briskness through Act 2, the body’s strings unexpectedly rich in the State Theatre’s close acoustic, some small passages of woodwind/string doubling whistle-clean, while the brass corps also surprised by its quick rate of response; no chain-dragging on this night.

In fine, this Boheme is worth visiting for its main players, both excellent calibre singers – which makes it hard to understand the premiere patrons’ lukewarm curtain-call reaction to Haroutourian.   Admittedly, she was dressed in an oddly dowdy costume for much of the night but that should have provided no impediment for a worthy response to her impressive vocal powers.    Among the locals, Jones shone with a secure and confident baritone.   As always, if the production’s look strikes you every so often as ineffective, if not over-affected, you can ignore the stage work and simply revel in some of the more transporting Italian operatic lyricism this theatre has sponsored for quite a while.

There will be a further eight performances of La Boheme, the last on Saturday May 28.