Things that fall: La Boheme
New Zealand Opera
Until October 13
Reviewer: Max Rashbrooke
When faced with a classic like La Boheme, it's always hard to keep it fresh and avoid the legacies of past performances. Director Jacqueline Coats has taken the approach of setting it in no defined period. This doesn't quite work, for me, because rather than leaving one free to concentrate on the action, as hoped, it tends to distract the viewer's mind into trying to piece together different clues. In the opening scene, Marcello appears to be painting something in the style of Mark Rothko, while Rodolfo seems to be wearing a combination of a frock coat and jeans. It’s hard to avoid wondering what’s going on.
The opening scene isn't promising, either, in the sense that a number of the singers, including Nicholas Lester and Timothy Newton, seem slightly underpowered for the roles, even if the latter provides a compelling portrayal of a brooding philosopher. Nor does their acting convincingly put across a sense of shivering cold in an open and slightly disembodied-feeling set.
But things pick up the moment that Marlena Devoe, as Mimi, arrives on the scene. Hers is a wonderful voice, rich and subtle, and she fashions her character with a slow, sad charm. Indeed the women quite outshine the men: Amelia Berry is a hoot as Musetta, combining outrageous antics with flashes of vulnerability and some pleasantly metallic high notes.
In contrast, I enjoyed the power of Thomas Atkins's voice, but he never convinced me as a young lover. He seemed at times to be trying to keep some ironic distance from the melodrama, but I think with La Boheme you have to go for it wholeheartedly. You want someone who burns themselves into your retinas, an actor who looks like they might really fall in love in a moment and live for the highs and lows of passion. Atkins's Rodolfo just looked too nice.
Still, there was much to enjoy. Julien Van Mellaerts, as Schaunard, had a lovely understated touch, conveying shades of both jollity and regret. If I wasn't convinced by the set for the first act, the brilliant, saturated black-and-white set in the cafe scene worked superbly well, as did the menacing, stabbing lines of the border scene. The big numbers were suitably thrilling, and the sound that Tobias Ringborg brought from the orchestra was as good as I've heard recently, a perfectly sweeping and rich sound to match the intensity of the emotion on stage.
And what emotion: as matters reached their inevitable, tragic conclusion, I have to admit I was in tears, as were those around me. Some things never lose their power to move.