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opera australia’s la bohème : a sumptuous production

Ivan Ayon Rivas as Rodolfo in Opera Australia’s production of La Boheme. pic Rhiannon Hopley

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LA BOHÈME opened to a full house this week. Director Gale Edwards’ original production from 2011 has been a mainstay for the company ever since and continues to draw the crowds with its much loved music, memorable sets and costumes. The original story of a group of Bohemians living in the attics of Paris in the 1890’s has inspired contemporary works such as the Broadway musical “Rent” and Baz Luhrmann’s film “Moulin Rouge”.
Edwards’ version is set in 1930’s Berlin. Time and place adds a foreboding of the coming military regime along with Act II set in a free-for-all, seedy nightclub for which Berlin was renowned at the time. These two components together to add a deep sense of unease, like danger rippling beneath the surface. It’s not a peaceful place to bloom love and creativity, but then, sometimes it is the most dangerous environments that inspire intense love simply because the living know life can be short. Live hard, play hard.
The costumes by Julie Lynch are wonderful with each Bohemian clearly defined in their own signature fashion style. The sets (Brian Thomson) and lighting (John Rayment) set the scene perfectly. Revival Director Shaun Rennie has done a superb job keeping Edwards’ vision alive, cleaning up the unspoken gags so they are clear and easy to spot.

When you run a production over a number of years, the change of soloists becomes the major point of difference. For this part of the season, the leading female role Mimi is played by Korean soprano Karah Son. A Puccini specialist, Son truly owns this role offering a delicate, feminine personality backed with a powerful voice that soars over the orchestra. She was superb.
Opposite her in the role of Rodolfo is Peruvian up and coming star Ivàn Ayòn-Rivas, a truly stunning voice and clearly a lovely person. (No nasty person can pretend to be this nice.) Not mentioned in the program, Iván Ayón-Rivas has some impressive accolades to his name. He won the Placido Domingo founded World Opera Competition “Operalia” in 2021 held at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, also the Luciano Pavarotti prize in the Etta e Paolo Limiti competition in Milan 2015. This young tenor has a light, lyrical tone, highly expressive and he easily creates Rodolfo’s head-over-heels love for Mimi. The chemistry was just beautiful between these two and had every one smiling.
Soprano Julie Lee Goodwin is her usual fabulous self as extrovert Musetta. She plays the role to perfection, appearing to be the classic, frivolous material girl in the beginning but proving her worth as a loyal friend in the end. Opposite her is up-and-coming baritone Haotian Qi as Marcello. It’s great to hear his voice growing stronger each season though becoming the fiercely passionate lover required to catch the attention of Musetta could be developed further. Bohemians Schaunard played by Alexander Sefton and Colline played by Richard Anderson were excellent.
Communication between the singers and orchestra, particularly in the better known arias, was initially a little crinkled but won’t take long to smooth out. Italian conductor Michelangelo Mazza makes his debut with Opera Australia and shows a wonderful musical talent interpreting the score in a sensitive and emotive way. His technique is flowing, almost balletic and the orchestra were responding beautifully.
The Opera Australia chorus were in great form along with a raft of crazy street urchin children who did a great job. There’s always a curiosity aroused around the toy seller Parpignol in this production. In the original version of the opera, he was likely a cuddly, “safe” feeling man who loves to deliver his toys to children yet, in this version, he is dressed as a Nephilim styled clown with devil horns on his head and throws little packages to the adults in the club – is he selling drugs? He is probably the least likely character for a group of children to chase down the street unless they are armed with sticks and stones.
Parpignol’s fleeting appearance in the middle of a glamorous nightclub with the grubby kids is one sticking point that is out of context with the new sets. Puccini introduced this appearance along with the street band as a distraction used by the Bohemians to exit the cafe and avoid paying their bill. It is what it is though and soon passes.
For more than a century, Puccini’s  LA BOHÈME has been one of the most popular Western operas in the world. With its youthful perspective of the world, it is filled with playtime, art, poetry, philosophy, comedy and jealousy; life and death.
 LA BOHÈME is the perfect one to start with if you’re not familiar with opera or you want to take someone along as an operatic introduction. The season runs until March with a change for soloists every few weeks. The production is highly recommended!
Mimi – Karah Son
Rodolfo – Iván Ayòn-Rivas
Musetta – Julie Lea Goodwin
Marcello – Haotian Qi
Shaunard – Alexander Sefton
Colline – Richard Anderson
Conductor – Michelangelo Mazza
Director – Gale Edwards
Revival Director – Shaun Rennie
Set Designer – Brian Thomson
Costume Designer – Julie Lynch
Lighting Designer – John Rayment
More from Opera Australia this year:
Tenor Iván Ayón-Rivas on Instagram
Featured image : Alexander Sefton as Schaunard, Haotian Qi as Marcello, Andrew Moran as Benoit, Iván Ayón Rivas as Rodolfo, and Richard Anderson as Colline in Opera Australia’s 2023 production of La Bohème at the Sydney Opera House Pic: Rhiannon Hopley

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