HANDA Opera on Sydney Harbour. Opera Australia. Fleet Steps, Mrs Macquaries Point. 23 March – 22 April 2018.
Rain clouds that have hovered threateningly over the city all day begin to clear. Late afternoon sunshine begins to filter through. The harbour begins to sparkle. What has been a dull and dreary day turns into a balmy, Sydney, autumn evening. How lucky for the opening night of another Handa Opera on the Harbour!
As the sky darkens above the Bridge and the Opera House, a crescent moon shines through the last wisps of cloud – and the lights go up on a snow-encrusted stage. It is a wintery December night in Paris. La Bohèmeis about to begin.
The wide, floating stage is a chilly street of the Latin Quarter, complete with towering Paris street lamps. Above the stage is an attic garret, the artlier of four struggling artists trying to make a living. A skylight suspended above it is a huge screen framed by icy stalactites. Here, projections of Paris landmarks under falling snow encapsulate the scene.
It is not, however, the Paris that Puccini envisaged in 1896. This is Paris in 1968, besieged by the “May revolution” where student demonstrations, riots and a general strike almost brought the country to a standstill, but also brought about a wealth of protest art and music.
It is, it would seem, a fitting re-imagining of an opera about struggling, fun-loving artists in freezing garrets, new-found love, bitter jealousy and a crippling illness!
La Bohème– is the age-old “boy meets girl” tale of love found, lost and found again, often, as in this case, unfortunately too late.
If it appears I am concentrating on the spectacle rather than the music and singing, forgive me – but that’s what these annual operas are about.
The struggling artists are Marcello (painter), Rudolfo (writer), Colline (philosopher) and Schaunard (musician). When Schaunard arrives home with money received for playing his violin to a parrot until it died, they decide to go through the busy ‘Quartier Latin’ to the ‘Café Momus’to celebrate.
Rudolfo stays behind and meets Mimi, who has come knocking on the door for a match to light her candle. They fall in love and join the others, where Marcello re-ignites his love for the lovely Musetta.
Passion, jealousy and the need for money constantly divide and re-unite the lovers until, at last, they are together again, remembering their past happiness … as Mimi, alas, dies from consumption.
Take this story to 1968 and designers Dan Potra (set) and Marco Devetak (video) come into their own. ‘Café Momus’ becomes a night club in the thriving, busy twentieth century ‘Quartier Latin’, complete with street entertainers, stilt-walkers and torch throwers. The toy seller, Parpignoi, appears suspended from a crane in a basket decorated with multi-coloured balloons, and spirits one of the children away in a swing that hangs below. Musetta arrives in a ’60s police car that drives along the harbour broad walk. And snow falls from light stands . . . .