La Bohème

St James Theatre 2, Wellington

10/05/2008 - 17/05/2008

Aotea Centre at THE EDGE®, Auckland

29/05/2008 - 07/06/2008

Production Details

A classic opera is brought back to life

Puccini’s La Bohème, arguably the most popular of all operas, gets a face lift in 2008. The NBR New Zealand Opera’s new production sees a vibrant cast and creative team bring this timeless classic back to life in a fresh and stylish way.

Heading the creative team and approaching Puccini from a modern perspective are dynamic Australians Patrick Nolan (director) and Ralph Myers (set designer). "Our concept is driven by a desire to illuminate the story in a way which connects the past to who we are as a society and culture now," says Nolan. "The time period has been moved from 1830 to 21st century Paris so our production presents a world that contemporary audiences will recognise and relate to." In keeping with this modernisation, New Zealand’s esteemed costume designer Elizabeth Whiting has created a range of sharp and imaginative costumes that place the characters in the Paris of today.

To realise this innovative direction, an outstanding cast has been secured, led by Opera Australia’s sensational star Antoinette Halloran as Mimì. Fellow Australian, Tiffany Speight, returns to play Musetta after her acclaimed role of Pamina in 2006’s The Magic Flute. And the new glamour boy on the international opera circuit, tenor Jesus Garcia, who starred on Broadway in Baz Luhrmann’s La Bohème, plays Rodolfo.

General Director of The NBR New Zealand Opera, Aidan Lang is thrilled with the cast and creative team the Company has lined up for this new production. "La Bohème is an opera about young people," he says, "so we wanted to secure an exciting, youthful cast and creative team who would, through an injection of freshness and energy and a contemporary perspective, create a memorable theatrical showpiece for audiences."

La Bohème is much more than just another tragic love story. It is a timeless celebration of youthful rites of passage, the proletarian struggle against poverty and the artist’s quest for integrity. In Puccini’s tour de force, audiences get the whole package – the tortured relationships, the resonant characters made famous by the likes of Melba and Caruso, Gheorghiu and Pavarotti, and the magnificent arias. Whether you are a Puccini enthusiast, attending an opera for the first time, or just a sucker for love, the story of Mimì and Rodolfo will totally captivate you.

Set Designer:  Ralph Myers
Costume Designer:  Elizabeth Whiting
Lighting Designer:  Bernie Tan
Assistant Director:  Steven Anthony Whiting 

Antoinette Halloran
Rodolfo:  Jesus Garcia
Musetta:  Tiffany Speight
Marcello:  Marcin Bronikowski
Schaunard:  Robert Tucker
Colline:  Wade Kernot  
Alcindoro:  Richard Green
Benoit:  Roger Wilson (Wellington); Brian McKay (Auckland)
Parpignol:  Michael Gray*

Customs Sergeant:  Matthew Landreth*
Customs Officer:  Hadleigh Adams*

With the Chapman Tripp Opera Chorus
Accompanied by the Vector Wellington Orchestra (Wellington) and the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra (Auckland)

sPwC Dame Malvina Major Young Artist
*PwC Dame Malvina Major Emerging Artist

2 hrs 30 mins, incl. interval

Lean update beautiful, brutal – and a winner

Review by William Dart 31st May 2008

NBR New Zealand Opera may have launched its new season cautiously, but Patrick Nolan’s lean update of Puccini’s La Boheme is a winner. The Australian director has aimed at blending the gritty, the brutal and the beautiful.

These Bohemians are not in a romantic garrett, but a claustrophobic apartment; despite Truffaut posters on the wall and communal bong, it would take more, one might think, than high-mindedness and a few burned papers to take away its chill. [More]


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Amazing singing wasted on paper-thin plot

Review by Simon Sweetman 21st May 2008

La Boheme was first performed in 1896. Since then it’s gain a reputation as a classic opera for all seasons – a simple tale that mixes comedy and tragedy and there are reviews that praise the best casts in the world for running the gamut of emotions, for allowing Puccini’s music to dance. But really, this updated version is a basic cash-cow; a chance to bring some money in by staging a much-loved opera and hopefully luring in all and sundry. Presumably, with a sold-out Wellington season, it has worked.

There is no denying the abilities of the main performers. Antoinette Halloran, as Mimi and Jesus Garcia as Rodolfo hold up to their roles well, likewise Tiffany Speight as Musetta and Marcin Bronikowski as Marcello; but the updated (contemporary) setting leads to some confusion as a setting for the beautiful singing.

La Bohème’s very basic story comes across as insulting to the audience in a modern setting. For a start it is hard to believe the gesture of a struggling poet throwing his verse in to a fire for warmth and to signal his struggle – both for his art and for his warmth – when, moments earlier we were watching it being typed out on a laptop. Surely he can save and print another copy? And Mimi taps on the door to receive a light for her candle. Rodolfo didn’t trip over the chord to his computer on the way to fall madly in love with her as he lit her (hand-held) fire. Just as well, right?

The set for act two, the market/café scene is bursting with liveliness, the chorus clearly relishing the chance to collectively shine, but again, it all seems a little far-fetched having us believe the old-world setting in a modern-day context.

And then, after the intermission, Rodolfo and Mimi are not speaking – though they’re still singing about one another (and occasionally to one another). Shouldn’t a country have gone to war by now?

This simple storyline, Mimi is sick so Rodolfo is sacred of being in love for her – because of what he will lose – is really a bit too rudimentary. Particularly when this production calls for the churched up trappings of a modern life; for if that’s the case the cynicism of the modern life must be applied also. And I just don’t buy it. I felt angry that such amazing singing, and the work of the Chapman Tripp Opera Chorus and Vector Wellington Orchestra in support, went to waste for a paper-thin plot. I don’t get the hook. And sure, the main players conveyed emotion, and yes it was pretty and witty and wise. But it still felt like a rip-off. Plain and simple. A cash-cow designed to lure people in normally scared of opera.

Originally published in The Lumière Reader.


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Compelling truth makes for truly moving conclusion

Review by John Smythe 12th May 2008

Artists living on the fringe: idealistic, compulsively creative, think they’re invincible … Even when they’re broke, cold and hungry, survival’s a game, an adventure. Any money they do come by is for booze and good times; the landlord’s to be duped and treated with contempt, and older men seduced by attractive young women are to be exploited for their wealth. All in the name of freedom.

Where such values rule, the premature death of one of the group becomes a reality check; the point at which the rite of passage marks the artists’ progress to a new level of awareness and maturity. Or escape.

It’s as true now as it was when Henri Murger penned his Scènes de la Vie Bohème, based on his own experiences as a desperately poor writer in Paris and set around 1830. Even though Puccini and his librettists retained the 1830s setting when turned into an opera in 1896, a contemporary setting for a new 2008 is surely valid.

Australians Patrick Nolan (director) and Ralph Myers (set designer) – both NIDA graduates -see it this way. “Our concept is driven by a desire to illuminate the story in a way which connects the past to who we are as a society and culture now,” says Nolan in a media release. “The time period has been moved from 1830 to 21st century Paris so our production presents a world that contemporary audiences will recognise and relate to.”

Thus the classical garret becomes bland warehouse space with a rubbish bin for a fireplace, and the Latin Quarter market operates in the shadow of post-brutalist concrete tenements, while the setting for the Toll Gate scene suggests either a construction or a demolition zone. And when we return to poet Rodolfo and painter Marcello’s place, their random student flat furniture seems to be out on the street.

Rodolfo has an Apple MacBook, the wine bottles have screw tops, a bong gets puffed on, condoms are handed out as the boys prepare to hit the town, and the Act 4 parody of a banquet with dancing morphs into a game of Twister.  Costume designer Elizabeth Whiting dresses them all in modern Parisian clothes, which mostly seem a little too new, clean and tidy for their circumstances. (I wanted to be reminded how art students plunder the op-shops then create whole new styles with fusions of forgotten fashions – or is that just a Kiwi thing?)

A young woman sitting beside us didn’t ‘buy’ the modernisation because she felt it “robbed the story of its romance.” But in my experience productions set in the 19th century tend to sentimentalise the ‘artist in the garret’ myth, making the characters seem self indulgent and shallow. This treatment, denying us such escapist fantasy, looks and feels as much like real life as the conventions of opera allow.

The production’s great strength is the credibility of the characters and their relationships, which is a testament to the casting of superb singers who look right for their roles and can also act. The whole cast – including the Chapman Tripp chorus – inhabit their roles so well that the singing becomes an expression of true feeling rather than just a demonstration of technical skill. Nolan is clearly an inspiring, aligning director.

While Jesus Garcia’s Rodolfo and Marcin Bronowski’s Marcello may not look totally broke, cold and hungry (the too-warm lighting doesn’t help), their friendship is fully convincing. And the status dynamics between them and their friends Schaunard (Robert Tucker) and Colline (Wade Kernot) are humorously recognisable.

Antoinette Halloran brings an honest innocence to embroiderer Mimi and her relationship with Rodolfo rings true at every turn. I do have a further quibble about the lighting in their first meeting scene, where she’s dropped her key, their candles are out and they are supposed to touch in the darkness. Instead a bright sidelight ruins the effect when moonlight through the slatted vertical blinds would have been much more interesting and true to the libretto.

Tiffany Speight compels our belief in the gold-digging Musetta who cannot deny her continued passion for ex-lover Marcello. And the Act 3 scene, outside the sleazy club where she and Marcello are working as kitchen hands to see through the winter, is riveting as the negative elements of the partners’ passions come to the fore and are confronted with heartfelt guilt and remorse.

There is a truth in Roger Wilson’s landlord Benoit that won’t allow us to dismiss him as a dupe who deserves to be ripped off while Richard Green’s ‘sugar daddy’ Alcindoro is the doting duffer to a tee.

This strong core of credibility, impeccably sung to the superb musicianship of the Vector Wellington Orchestra – all under the baton of conductor Emmanuel Joel-Hornak – carries the drama through the odd element that doesn’t work in the modern setting.

Rodolfo’s grand gesture of burning his torrid manuscript to keep them warm loses something when we realise he’ll still have it on his laptop. The toll gate-cum-Customs barrier in a back street of 21st century Paris seems rather odd (have the supermarkets prevailed on the civic authorities to penalise small traders in order to protect their monopolies or what)?

And of course the more we believe in the final scene, where the consumptive Mimi has returned to Rodolfo to die among friends, the harder it is to watch Colline singing a fond farewell to his coat instead of running off to pawn it so that medicine can be bought and brought to her sooner. But that’s opera for you.

Over all the compelling truth of the unfolding scenario comes to a truly moving conclusion that finally justified a curtain-call sequence that, on opening night, almost became a scene in itself. Bravo.
The production also plays  Aotea Centre at THE EDGE®, Auckland, from 29 May 2008 to 7 Jun 2008


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from a low key beginning to a powerful, believable, finale

Review by John Button 12th May 2008

Given that Opera NZ is taking a large box office gamble in staging Janacek’s great opera, Jenufa, later in the year, it was financially inevitable that they would opt for a money spinner now. And it would seem that the Wellington season of La Boheme is sold out, and the Auckland season nearly so, confirming the enormous popularity of Puccini’s 1896 pot-boiler.

This production moves way from the traditional – Paris in the 1830s – and sets it in the present day. In doing this the creative team takes a risk. Many operas benefit from modern settings but, for me, La Boheme is not one of them. It makes it points within an atmosphere of 19th century lighting, and our stylised, even sentimental, idea of Bohemian life in Paris.

Things start inauspiciously. The flat is a basic student flat with a low stud, and while it is clearly very basic it never feels really cold. Quite comfortable, in a way, and when Mimi makes her appearance she gives an impression of rude health – albeit with a cold.
The café scene is highly effective present day realistic; open air within a market, and back dropped by a splendidly solid and drab apartment block.

By Acts III and IV things are even more believable, and, thanks to the quality of both the singing and the acting, the drama grows in tension, finally reaching its conclusion in moving fashion.
And this is, at heart, a singing and acting production.

Both Antoinette Halloran as Mimi and Jesus Garcia as Rodolfo are superb on all fronts. Their singing is world class, they look the part, and both can act. Halloran moves from the disconcerting health of her first appearance to her final consumptive end with extraordinary subtlety, and Garcia, in his mix of conflicting emotions, is entirely believable.

But the glue that draws this production together comes from Marcin Bronikowski as Marcello and Tiffany Speight as Musetta, ably assisted by the Colline of Wade Kernot and the Schaunard of Robert Tucker. All act superbly and all are extremely secure vocally.

All the minor roles are nicely drawn and the conducting of Emmanuel Joel-Hornak, abetted by some wonderfully secure orchestral playing, is superbly stylish.

On balance this production scores by building, in masterly fashion, from a low key beginning to a powerful, believable, finale.

I can’t say that about every La Boheme I have experienced. 


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