Premiering in 1896, Italian composer Giacomo Puccini’s opera La bohème is one of the most frequently performed operas in the world. What Puccini created in the 19th century was a verisimo style opera — a real life and relatable story, which perhaps explains its success over yet another era.
Directed by Gale Edwards (Sweeney Todd) and accompanied by conductor Christian Badea – making his charming Melbourne debut over the season – La bohème is the story of a poor poet, Rodolpho, who falls in love with an equally poor, ill seamstress, Mimi. Their story, set in Berlin in the 1930s, sees a passionate whirlwind relationship fall apart through heart-breaking and unfortunate means.
Rodolpho, played by Australian tenor David Corcoran, expressed his emotional journey of infatuation for Mimi (Australian soprano, Nicole Car). The two Melbourne-based cast members replaced the original international leads – Takesha Meshé Kizart (Mimi) and Ji-Min Park (Rodolpho) – towards the end of April. Without being able to make any comparison, they were splendid leads and closed an amazing show. However they were not alone in their brilliant performances, accompanied by an equally vibrant and profoundly talented cast.
The first scene opened to a sweeping backdrop of an artist’s studio. Rodolpho is joined with his three friends: Marcello, a fierce painter (Andrew Jones); Colline, a scruffy philosopher (David Parkin); and Schaunard, a lanky and worldly musician (Shane Lowrencev.) Together on Christmas Eve, the four friends, filled with the spirit of each other’s company, burn copies of an original play script to keep warm by the fire. And as they head out for an evening of entertainment and drinks at Café Momus, Rodolpho stays behind to finish a poem. When the power turns out, a vulnerable neighbour stumbles to his door to find a light for her candle. The beautiful Mimi encounters a dashing Rodolpho.
From there we are led through a shimmering street crowd of children, circus acts and song, followed by a dazzling stage set of Café Momus, complete with second floor balconies and cabaret dancers.
More than a passionate tale of love and sacrifice, this is the story of friendship and compassion. Rodolpho shares a bond with his three male companions that one would hope they could get throughout the trials of war and heartbreak.
This may have been the last curtain call for Melbourne, but it was my very first for any opera. I noticed the crowd as they shuffled into their seats: elderly couples and people of different nationalities, hand in hand and taking their places; a mass of high school arts students dressed in evening attire; giggling adolescent girls, seeking young romance.
At the closing of Act I, I glanced at an elderly gentleman next to me, watched him sniffle and wipe away a tear with his soaking tissue. Those were the moments that felt foreign. As Rodolpho and Mimi sang in expressive unison, something chilling within me came alive, as though my heart were growing in size. It’s remarkable that such a historical and classic genre of entertainment is still cherished, respected and can be rediscovered through another performance. And continues to do so around the world.
The sets and characters were often so bedazzling that you become immersed in their song, joy and somber scenes. The surtitles that flashed above the screen became more foreign then their language as I slowly stopped looking to them. The evening was not only a discovery of love, or a story of passion; rather it was the grand experience of a grand old opera. In Mimi’s words: ‘Let us part, and leave with no bitterness’ — and so we did, but with roaring applause.
La bohème — filmed and uploaded by Opera Australia on youtube.
Yeliz Selvi is a Postgraduate Diploma in Journalism student at La Trobe University. Yeliz has also completed a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Media Studies at La Trobe. You can find out more about her in her blog.