La Bohème


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LA BOHÈME

Composer: Giacomo Puccini

Libretto: Luigi Ilica & Giuseppe Giacosa

First produced: Teatro Regio Turin, 1896

Present Company: Opera Australia 2011

Director: Gale Edwards

Sets: Brian Thomson

Costumes: Julie Lynch

Lighting: John Rayment

Video Director: Cameron Kirkpatrick

Audio Director: Tony David Cray

Opera Australia Orchestra & Chorus

Conductor: Shao-Chia Lü

 

Cast:

Rodolfo: Ji-Min Park

Mimi: Takesha Meshé Kizart

Marcello: José Carbó

Musetta: Taryn Fiebig

Colline: David Parkin

Schaunard: Shane Lowrencev

Benoit: John Bolton Wood

Alcindoro: Adrian Tamburini

 

Specs:

Resolution: 1080i

Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1

Disc size: BD-50

Opera: 38.32 GB

Bit Rate: High (36-39 Mbps)

Italian DTS-HD MA 5.1

Italian PCM 2.0 stereo

Subtitles:

English, German, Italian, French, Spanish & Korean

Region: All

Opera runtime: 117 minutes

Opera Australia 2012

 

Grade

Conception & Staging: A

Costumes & Makeup: B

Casting: A-

Singing: B+

Orchestra: B

Music Direction: B

Video Direction: B

Image: A

Audio: A-

Extras Features: D (booklet & essay)

Recommendation: B


 

Comment

Remember when James Garner’s character arrives at the nightclub too late to have read the playbill.  He mistakes Victor for Victoria, and thereby hangs a comedy.  So that you don’t make a similar mistake, you should know that the setting for Gale Edwards’ production of Puccini’s immortal opus is not the Bohemian quarter in mid-nineteenth century Paris, but in Berlin on the eve of the dawn of the Reich, where life is indeed a Cabaret.


        

 

Synopsis

Rodolfo, a poet (what else!); Marcello, a painter; Schaunard, a musician; and Colline, a philosopher, share a garret in mid-nineteenth century Paris. It is the time of the Moulin Rouge, of Édouard Manet, Baudelaire and Auguste Comte. The four men are the quintessential starving artists. They share temporary profits from odd bits of employment or the pawning of some of their belongings, and enjoy the heat granted in the ritual burning of Rodolfo’s unpublished manuscripts.  When there is found money they blow it in a night at the Latin Quarter where, on this particular Christmas Eve, Marcello’s on-again, off-again girlfriend, Musetta, appears with some rich gentleman she is currently enjoying.


        

 

Into this delirium staggers Mimi, a seamstress.  She enters tentatively while Rodolfo is putting his thoughts together before joining his friends for one of their nights out.  Mimi knocks at the door.  She is a neighbor who lives by herself. Her candle has gone out and she has no matches.  When Rodolfo lights her candle, she loses her key “accidentally.” Rodolfo, in turn, hides it from her.  It’s love’s hide and seek game, but also the story of their lives in the simplest of metaphors.  

 

While the men laugh at poverty, Mimi suffers a nagging cough - and we all know what that means.  Neither poverty nor illness, however, prevents Mimi and Rodolfo from falling deliriously, hopelessly in love, with its attendant demands and jealousies. That’s about it - in four concise acts, scarcely two hours - with some of the most bittersweet and boisterous music you’ll ever hear, and an ending that will tear your heart out, providing the tenor is up to it.


        

 

Performance

A truly international cast this, demonstrating once again the universal appeal of Puccini’s opera.  It helps to set the story in Berlin as Weimar gives way to fascism, though certain details of the text, such as Rodolfo’s description of Mimi’s blue eyes and pale skin, need to be overlooked.

 

As is the case with many a performance, the cast tends to take a while to find their voice: Korean born Ji-Min Park, our Rodolfo, seems timid and uncertain until his first exchange with Mimi.  He has a boyish quality about him that works very well, especially in his third act confession to Marcello about the real reason why he can’t be with Mimi.  The American soprano, Takesha Meshé Kizart, hits her Mimi right from her entrance, but to my ear her voice is decidedly Verdian, which happens to be perfect for the third act.  Like many Mimi’s, she is far too healthy for the part, but that probably can’t be otherwise.  All the same, she is a little sluggish physically – or perhaps that’s just in comparison to Park. Kizart tends to cover her vowels and only barely makes her last note in the first act.  That said, she has a lovely voice that grew on me by degrees – and like her Rodolfo, is best in the third act where her conflicted feelings about Rodolfo torment us as well as her.


        

 

The bulk of the supporting cast is associated with Opera Australia: Born in Argentina, bred in Australia, José Carbó’s warm baritone also has just enough edge to accuse Musetta of some flirtation or other - always deserved in her case, which doesn’t keep us from loving both of them.  He replaces Andrew Jones as the originally cast Marcello.  Australian mezzo Taryn Fiebig’s has more chest than most Musettae.  This makes her older, but also more wordly.  In any case the warmth of her voice doesn’t keep her earthbound, as she has hardly any trouble with her high notes in the second act.  Bass-baritone Shane Lowrencev is unassuming but competent.  David Parkin’s Colline’s wobbly bass has to wait until his last act farewell to his overcoat to settle down, but his is the only glaring difficulty.  The children in the café are very good, indeed, as is the chorus.


        

 

Whatever reservations I may have about the cast, they pale in comparison to Shao-Chia Lü’s leisurely pacing. Not well known in the West, Lü was born in Taiwan, studied in the U.S. and Vienna, and conducted all over Europe and Australia. For La Bohème his operating principle seems to be to let the music speak for itself. The third act excepted, which is the highlight of this performance on all counts, he rarely wrings the kind of pathos or passion necessary from his orchestra, and because of this the singers come off less interesting or engaging than they might otherwise.  This is especially true for Mimi’s entrance in the last act.  Each time she faints, Lü fails to grip us. Rodolfo’s final pleas should have us in tears. They don’t and it’s not Park’s fault.  On the other hand, Lü holds both pit and stage together and never lets anyone, no matter how young or how many, come off their mark.  The second act has plenty of breadth and space, still Musetta’s two verses could have been better highlighted. Lü allows things to flow. He goes for the big phrase and misses opportunities to catch our breath.


        

 

Video & Audio

For all their poverty, the artists enjoy living spaces that would be the envy of many today: huge rooms and limitless ceilings.  While this is common enough for stagings of La Bohème, for some reason I noticed it more here. This same rectangular shape that tended to overwhelm its characters is continued in each of the acts, partly the effect of the relatively even lighting.  The quality of that light changes with each act, but we can usually see everything well enough. The third act, drenched in deep blue, does more with light than any of the others and no doubt contributes to its being the most dramatic (Why chairs instead of benches eludes me, however.)  The second act, staged as a quasi Café Momus, replete with theatre stalls, prostitutes and a youth band, is rich with reds, yet for some inexplicable reason, Rodolfo’s table is highlighted in green, which I can assure does neither Park nor Kizart justice.  On the other hand, I loved the idea of placing Musetta in front of a microphone as she sings her famous waltz.  More than anything it conveys the time, place and manner.


        

 

Video Director Cameron Kirkpatrick does a fine job of moving between wide, medium and close-ups.  He generally chooses sensible moments to reflect on reactions rather than stay with the person singing.  High definition is great but, as we know, lets us see more than wish, for instance that Ji-Min Park perspires more than he wishes.  Curiously his co-star doesn’t, and when she returns in the fourth act on death’s door, she needs to be misted to convey the desired effect. 

 

My one complaint is that each act ends oddly and the last three too abruptly.  This is not Puccini’s fault.  In the first act, we still see Rodolfo and Mimi even though their voices are (or are thought to be) offstage. In the remaining acts, John Rayment’s lighting fades too quickly for Kirkpatrick’s camera to pull back in time.

 

Opera Australia offers the usual two uncompressed audio mixes: surround in 5.1 DTS-HD MA and 2.0 stereo in PCM.  I listened extensively to both and finally came down in favor of the stereo.  The surround mix has the advantage of spaciousness and a fraction more bass, but everything, voices included is diffuse – something like how we might experience it from well back in the audience, but louder.  The stereo mix is considerably more focused and more dynamic.


        

 

Bonus

The single bonus item is found in the accompanying booklet: In the “Director’s Note” Gale Edwards speaks to the setting of this production nearly a century hence and in Berlin (which, by the way, has some touches of female frontal nudity in the café scene.)  Edwards goes on to talk about prostitution (only glancingly referred to in the libretto) from the feminist perspective and in making the case, in my opinion, fails to understand Rodolfo’s true reason why he broke it off with Mimi: because he could not bear to confront his own failing to care for her.  It is remarkable that despite Edwards’ unsympathetic view of Rodolfo, Ji-Min Park brings home so achingly Rodolfo’s betrayal to Mimi.


One note about the subtitles: I was more troubled than usual by the anticipation of a reply.  Thus we see simultaneous statement and reply well before the latter is sung.


        

 

Recommendation

There is no doubt that I am more critical of productions and performances of La Bohème than most operas.  I’m not sure why that is exactly.  Partly because it is so economical – it is over before you know it - surely someone has found a way to stage it without breaks – the story and drama is condensed to its bare essentials. The principals are so exposed and their songs are so familiar – iconic, even.  That said, this one from Opera Australia is no less good than others I’ve seen on Blu-ray.  The staging is intriguing, the image and sound quality is very good and the singing engaging – at least as far as the conductor will let it.  The two principals are both new to me and I expect have promising futures, especially Kizart, who seems to be groomed as the next Jessie Norman.  We shall see.


        



Leonard Norwitz

© LensViews

July 21, 2012



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