Puccini’s La Boheme in Wellington – ineffably human and heartfelt

New Zealand Opera presents:
GIACOMO PUCCINI – La Boheme (libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, after Henri Murger)

Cast:   Thomas Atkins (Rodolfo)
Marlena Devoe (Mimi)
Nicholas Lester (Marcello)
Amelia Berry (Musetta)
Julien Van Mellaerts  (Schaunard)
Timothy Newton (Colline)
Barry Mora (Benoit / Alcindoro)
Manase Latu  (Parpignol)

Freemasons New Zealand Opera Chorus
Michael Vinten (Chorus Director)

Orchestra Wellington
Tobias Ringborg (conductor)

Director – Jacqueline Coats
Assistant Director – Jesse Wikiriwhi
Set Designer – Rachael Walker
Costume Designer – Elizabeth Whiting
Lighting Designer – Jennifer Lal

Wellington State Opera House

Thursday 4th October, 2018 (until Oct.13th)

It may seem a strange entry point for a review’s beginning – but at the opening night of New Zealand Opera’s 2018 season of “La Boheme” in the Wellington Opera House on Thursday last, there was for me, near the Second Act’s conclusion, a “great moment”, whose incredible lyrical surge and explosion of sheer theatrical energy seemed at once to overshadow and enhance the significance of everything that had gone before – this, in a production that had already stretched out before us up to this point a connected array of jewel-like moments, glowing like gorgeously-appointed lights. I’m referring to the climax of the famous Waltz-song sung by the flirtatious Musetta,  with all the opera’s characters at the street-café watching and joining in with her in aiding and abetting her reunitement with her jealous, yet still utterly besotted ex-lover Marcello, every singer holding and thrillingly intensifying their singing-lines right up to the point where Musetta falls once again into Marcello’s arms, and the orchestra thunders its approval! – a moment even experienced opera-goers would die for and at which newcomers to the goings-on would be literally transported!

It was, of course, a moment in which the expressive capabilities of every principal character on stage seemed thrown open – there had already been instances with similar “charge” that had swept things along in the story, though not to quite the same concerted extent. But for me it fulfilled the promise set up by the production right from the curtain’s opening – we were engaged, from the very first strains of the orchestra’s excited, rumbustious ascending phrases, and the bohemian Marcello’s shivering disavowal of his painting of the “Red Sea”, countered by his equally frozen companion Rodolfo’s judgement concerning the cold, idle stove! Each of the voices “sounded” the character so beautifully  – Nicholas Lester’s Marcello muscular and virile, and Thomas Atkins’ Rodolfo lighter-toned but strongly-focused in his upper registers, both characters ENJOYING the text’s wry humour and quicksilver exchanges.

The other two bohemians variously and characteristically made their entrances, the gentle, soft-spoken Colline of Timothy Newton a perfect foil for the vigorous, raconteur-like Schaunard of Julien Van Mellaerts, the four together making a boisterous and engaging quartet, combining sharp-etched individuality with string-quartet-like collaboration, their stage horseplay delightfully choreographed. The four’s concerted treatment of the intruding landlord, Benoit, desirous of his overdue rent (a deliciously self-indulgent cameo by Barry Mora) summed up a whole life-stage of youthful, “devil-take-the-hindmost”abandonment!

Left alone then, to finish an article he’s writing, Rodolfo then, of course, unexpectedly encountered Mimi, a neighbour of his wanting a light for her candle, the character shyly at first, then more impulsively portrayed by Marlena Devoe, her voice having both sweetness and energy enough to convey the often conflicting inclinations which can colour a first meeting. Each singer then “put their cards on the table” with successive arias, both shaping their various outpourings with great artistry, Atkins’ soft-grained utterances at the beginning of “Che gelida manina” gathering increasing heft as he described how his “empty place was filled with hope” (…poiche v’ha preso stanza la speranza….) with confidently ringing tones and a true command of line.

In reply, Marlena Devoe’s Mimi began simply and demurely with “Mi chiamano Mimi”, shyly inflecting her approaches to soaring passages like “that talk of love, of spring” (che parlando d’amor, di primavera…), before building up to her song-bird-like “April’s first kiss is mine….” (Il primo bacio dell’aprile e mio!…) and melting our hearts with her spontaneous-sounding nuances of line and tone. Throughout, the orchestra accompanied with the utmost sensitivity, Thomas Ringborg and his players completely at one with the onstage ebb-and-flow of incident and emotion, and making the most of even incidental-sounding sequences, such as the beautiful colourings from the wind and brass in the passage immediately following the bohemians’ teasing calls to their recalcitrant colleague, about to declare his love to his new-found companion.

Act Two exploded around and about our sensibilities, the stage and its occupants cleverly silhouetted at first then flooded with energy-inducing illumination (a marvellously incandescent effect by lighting designer Jennifer Lal), straightaway depicting a fantastical evocation of a generic nineteenth-century urban scene, which just happened to be Paris.  Director Jacqueline Coats had said she wanted to evoke a kind of timelessness about the story, paying ample attention to the story’s specified time and place, without giving her audience a “too tied up in period” kind of distraction – no small thanks due, of course, to designer Elizabeth Whiting’s unerring sense of character and appropriate costuming. What was paramount here, and something which I strongly connected with amid the colour and energy of the café and its environs, was what Coats called “the way the world is transformed when (people are) in love”. Throughout much of the scene this was poetically and idyllically expressed by Rodolfo and Mimi’s interaction, and, by contrast, tempestuously and abrasively by Marcello and his on-again, off-again sweetheart Musetta (winningly and coquettishly played by Amelia Berry), whose aforementioned “Waltz Song” built up to that overwhelming climax of emotion at the end of the act.

Here, though, as nowhere else in the opera, the chorus was a major player in the action, beginning the action before the bohemians appeared – street-vendors, shoppers, policemen, children, and the waiters and waitresses of the café – with both singing and movement whose energies seemed to fuse with the musical line and sweep everything along in a tide of festive euphoria – a tribute to the expert work of chorusmaster, Michael Vinten.  Occasionally galvanising the action were the antics of one of the vendors, a figure called Parpignol (sung and acted with great flair by Manase Latu), whose presence drew from the crowd, Pied-Piper-like, a stream of children, all following him around in excitement, each child anxious to gain possession one of the bunch of balloons he carried.

Into this plethora of activity strode Musetta, with her unfortunate “sugar-daddy” in tow, an elderly gentleman, Alcindoro (Barry Mora once again nailing” a cameo to perfection). I thought Amelia Berry’s choreographing of her song beautifully done, with the long, sinuous melodic lines accompanying her flirtatious interactions with various partners by way of teasing Marcello and annoying her companion, but also drawing from Devoe’s Mimi an affecting, empathetic vocal counterpoint. As a ruse she finally sent off her elderly swain to the shoemakers to buy a more comfortable pair of shoes, thus freeing herself up to “connect” with the (by now) all-too-willing Marcello. What a scene, and (as outlined above) what a triumph!

Alas, downhill it all went from here, of course (I mean the story-line, not the performance!), as do most “serious” operatic love-stories, firstly into a scene whose bleak, unremitting aspect of emptiness candidly expressed the narrative’s emotional contourings (director Coats paid tribute in a programme interview to designer Rachael Walker’s sense of the work’s overall feeling and her stage representations of it, deservedly so, in my opinion). The characters performed their sad charades by turns, firstly Mimi, made desperate by Rodolfo’s jealousy, and then Rodolfo, equally desperate due to Mimi’s sickness, before they became aware of one another’s presence. Eventually forgetting recriminations, and in the most affecting manner, they sang of their happy times, before agreeing to part “in the spring”, Mimi’s farewell given the most touching of performances by Devoe, voice and “presence” in focused accord. Ironically, their agreement was counterpointed by a furious argument between Musetta and Marcello, one whose resonances spilled over into the final act, as did the more poetic but no less profoundly affecting of Mimi’s and Rodolfo’s.

The reverse parallels between the opera’s opening and that of the final Act were duly and affectingly brushed in, with Marcello and Rodolfo once again alone, each trying to work, but heavily distracted this time round by memories rather than future possibilities. Schaunard’s and Colline’s arrival again occasioned horseplay, but of a more sardonic, even desperate kind, the whole being interrupted by Musetta, announcing Mimi’s arrival and then bringing her in, seriously ill. Though diametrically opposed in feeling and incident, it was here that the resonances of that overwhelming conclusion to the Second-Act came back, in the form of what it had all led to – the same characterful voices (with Devoe and Atkins, as the lovers, particularly affecting), magnificent orchestral detailing and “shaping” of the music, settings of stage and lighting, and costumings that looked so “right”. It all seemed to me at this moment a kind of natural outcome of (as well as a contrast to) that earlier outpouring of frisson during which something ineffably human and heartfelt became transcendent for a few precious seconds!

So, no sentimentality at the end, but instead a heartrending  and truly cathartic conclusion with Mimi’s inevitable, but still shocking death. A memorable and satisfying production, then, with everything in focus, and seemingly “knowing” what it was there for.  I think the production’s success came down to that sense of everything belonging, everything “told” what to do by Puccini’s music. Director Jacqueline Coats knew this when she remarked in the aforementioned programme interview “That’s the power of the music. As a director, it’s your best friend – it tells you everything you need to know”. Well done, NZ Opera!


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