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PUCCINI La Boheme in Australia and London

Opera Australia, Sidney Opera House

Director: Baz Luhrmann
Conductor: Julian Smith

Cheryl Barker .... Mimì
David Hobson .... Rodolfo
Roger Lemke .... Marcello
Christine Douglas .... Musetta
Gary Rowley .... Colline
David Lemke .... Schaunard
John Bolton-Wood .... Alcindoro
Graeme Ewer .... Benoît
Jin Tea Kim .... Parpignol

Arthaus: 100954 [1993, 113 mins]

Not a name here familiar to Europeans apart from that of the director of Moulin Rouge. There is a good description on line of this production, originally of 1990, and as I steadily become even older I become ever more reluctant to paraphrase and rephrase material available at the click of a mouse.

Baz Luhrmann takes us to his imagined Paris of the '50s, but the actual staging for Sydney's vast auditorium is whimsical and sometimes schematic, no more realistic than in his ever popular film of the world of Toulouse-Lautrec and the Can-Can. Luhrmann's transition from c.1840s to the 1950s is helpfully explained in the more than usually pertinent essay in the Arthaus booklet; the parallels in the social circumstances, with younger people rebellious agaihst their prosperous elders, are persuasive.

The attic set, in which the drama begins and ends, has a convenient see-through glass roof, and the heart-wrenching Act 3 quartet, with the anquished parting of Rodolfo and Mimi counterpointed by petulant fury of the other couple, takes place at close quarters on a structure of scaffolding. The Cafe Momus scene is broadened and peopled with characters who fill the stage and even surround the orchestra; something to give far away members of the audience an eyeful of colour and movement.

Was this revival planned with the world-wide home audience, and especially people living far from recognised opera centres, particularly in mind? The voices as recorded seem to be on the small side, and the acting is intimate and true. We are drawn into the ever-familiar, ever-new drama of fragile youthful relationships, and shown a contented audience in the serried rows - how did it sound and look from the back? Whatever, it makes for gripping tele-watching and one felt yet again that this is the Puccini opera to save if all the others were to be lost.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Producer: John Copley
Designer: Julia Trevelyan Oman
Conductor: Lamberto Gardelli

Ileana Cotrubas ...Mimì
Neil Shicoff ...Rodolfo
Marilyn Zschau ...Musetta
Thomas Allen ...Marcello
Gwynne Howell ...Colline
John Rawnsley ...Schaunard
Brian Donlan ...Benoît
John Gibbs ...Alcindoro

NVC Arts 4509-99222-2 [2000, 118 mins]

Puccini lovers should by on no account pass by the Royal Opera's traditional production by John Copley. The contrastingly conventional settings by Julia Trevelyan Oman are satisfying (a plausible attic, if larger than one usually finds!) and the costumes, mainly in muted colourings, create a believable mid 19 C atmosphere.

The singers are well cast, personable and young enough to convince in their roles; they make you laugh and tear your heart strings as Puccini intended. Cotrubas and Shicoff are a fine pair of lovers doomed by the inevitable difficulties of relationships which they take hard, Thomas Allen & Marilyn Zchau more lightly theirs. The final death scene is handled rather better than its rival, in which the Rudolfo avoids touching Mimi's corpse, Lurhmann affecting for him instead a Christ-like pose on a ladder until curtain fall. But in general, although Covent Garden scores for verisimilitude, Sydney does so for the emotional interactions of the protagonists in this domestic drama, and ultimately that scores. But you would do well to acquire both and likely will play each of them more than once.


© Peter Grahame Woolf