’s enduring popularity simultaneously offers an advantage to and poses a difficulty for any newcomer to the field. The plus side is that in principle the public is predisposed to like the product; the danger is that an existing rival will have set standards that are very hard to beat.
MusicWeb International’s Masterworks listings currently carry reviews of no fewer than 11 versions of the opera on DVD (see here
) and this new one will actually become Australian Opera’s second entry on that list. The first was the 1990s Baz Luhrmann production that became something of a worldwide cultural phenomenon (see here
). Just as that earlier version had done, this new one shifts the story well forward into the twentieth century and employs a cast that is strikingly – and appropriately – younger than most.
Whereas Luhrmann’s production was set in 1950s, here we are in the early 1930s. We have, moreover, moved 500 miles east from Paris to find ourselves in the Berlin of Otto Dix, The blue angel
, Mr Norris changes trains
, The damned
and countless other books and films that have established an indelible image of Weimar decadence in our collective consciousness.
The production’s overall appearance is one of its plus points. Brian Thomson’s settings are suitably atmospheric. The double-height abandoned-warehouse set that serves as the boys’ living space in the first and last acts will have fans of Kevin McCloud’s Grand Designs
slavering over their well-thumbed copies of Refurb & Renovation News.
An exterior of Café Momus that, with a quick revolve of the scenery, is transformed into its brashly colourful interior, is also well conceived. After all that light and colour, the third act’s toll-gate set seems depressingly dreary – but that, after all, is the whole dramatic point. The costumes – designed by Julie Lynch - have been well chosen too, with Blu-ray technology allowing us to see in minute detail just how worn and threadbare Mimi’s coat actually is.
The young cast certainly looks right. Ji-Min Park plays Rodolfo as a sort of naïve, boisterous young puppy and he and his companions are constantly rushing around the set in a way that might quickly exhaust – and perhaps injure the dignity of - singers of more advanced years. At one point Marcello and Colline throw Rodolfo to the ground quite roughly in a play fight but Mr Park takes it all quite happily on the chin - or, rather, on the backside. All four young male characters are well differentiated – Schaunard has been given a decidedly gay characterisation – and have a completely believable rapport among themselves.
Takesha Meshé Kizart makes an exceptionally pretty Mimi, which, while it explains why Rodolfo falls instantly in love with her, can be dramatically rather inappropriate. When, in the first Act, Rodolfo remarks, in an aside, “How ill she looks …”, Ms Kizart doesn’t actually look ill at all – she has merely fallen to the floor. Similarly, as she lies dying, having supposedly been found by Musetta destitute and dragging herself through the streets, this Mimi still sports beautifully-applied lip gloss framing a set of the whitest teeth that you’re likely to see this side of a Colgate commercial: far from bravely fibbing to keep the poor girl’s spirits up, Rodolfo is merely telling her the truth when he says that she is still beautiful.
Taryn Fiebig’s Musetta – here portrayed as some sort of resident singer with the Café Momus band - is a well-drawn characterisation. The viewer’s eye is drawn regularly to her, not least because of her especially glamorous Act 2 costume and an amazing platinum blonde permanent wave hairdo that even Jean Harlow might envy.
Clever and effective individual characterisation is also apparent in that busy second Act where the street traders, hawkers, entertainers, shoppers and kids are well marshalled on a very full and busy stage. Its central revolving area is cleverly used at points to give an illusion of even more movement and activity, as, for instance, when Musetta “wanders” amongst the diners’ tables. Matters are accomplished just as well in the café interior scene, with the 1930s setting effectively emphasised. At one point Musetta replicates the famous Marlene Dietrich pose from The blue angel
. Meanwhile the female customers/hostesses – as the disc’s packaging warns prospective buyers, one of them is topless - look like nothing so much as slightly up-market hookers from Visconti’s film The damned.
Those are not, incidentally, the only cinematic references that will have you scratching your head and saying “Where have I seen something like that before?” You’d swear that Schaunard’s get-up in Act 1 is Dirk Bogarde made up in full slap in the final scenes of Death in Venice
(more Visconti). Similarly, the Bund Deutscher Mädel
-type marching band that brings the Café Momus shenanigans to an end is reminiscent of the Tomorrow belongs to me
episode in the film Cabaret.
The “Nazi” pointers – though you never actually see a swastika anywhere - continue in Act 3, with militaristic guards and a customs official who, utterly detached in an Eichmann-like way from the poverty and suffering visible all around him, perfectly embodies Hannah Arendt’s concept of the “banality of evil”.
All in all, then, we have an attractive and interesting staging here. But what of the singing? This, bear in mind, is a relatively young La Boheme.
At the time the recording was made, Ji-Min Park (for a brief biography see here
) was in his early thirties and Takesha Meshé Kizart (see here
) was only 28 or 29. So, on grounds of maturity, experience and acquired technique one ought not to expect the vocal standards of, say, Jussi Björling, who starred in Beecham’s classic set while in his mid-forties, or Renata Tebaldi who was 47 when she recorded the role of Mimi for Serafin. Both Park and Kizart have voices that do not (yet) have the weight and authority – or, to be honest, the technical reliability - of those of their seniors. Given that one of them is playing a student whose emotional development hasn’t yet got past the stage of puppy love and the other a girl with a serious lung infection, it might be argued that the lighter voices are, if less dramatically compelling, more appropriate to their characters. In the opera’s great emotional moments at the end of the first and last Acts, Park and Kizart avoid barnstorming effects but still manage to stir the emotions and stimulate the tear ducts as required. Incidentally, Ji-Min Park himself appears at one point to be quite overcome. It may just be sweat, but at around 1:18:19 I’d swear that that’s a genuine tear that rolls slowly down his cheek from the corner of his eye.
The supporting cast does, on the whole, a fair job, given that what we have here is a film put together from just two live performances rather than a studio recording with endless opportunities for retakes. José Carbó’s Marcello makes the strongest positive impression. The orchestra, under the direction of the very experienced Taiwanese conductor Shao-Chia Lü (see here
) sounds full and authoritative from the very opening.
Cameron Kirkpatrick’s direction for TV is generally fine. It exhibits, however, one awkward but inevitable problem shared with many other filmed opera productions – close-up shots showing us something that, although the theatre audience cannot see it, is at odds with the sung text. In this case we have several close-ups showing Mr Park’s face dripping with sweat at the same time that he is repeatedly remarking how very cold it is. Video viewers understandably expect a movie-like experience with plenty of close-ups, however, so it is difficult to see a solution to that particular problem in productions recorded live on stage.
The Blu-ray disc offers very finely reproduced sound and a fabulous, detailed and very realistic picture. A product like this one completely justifies any extra cost over that of a “normal” DVD. As an interesting take on an old favourite, I will certainly watch this production again. And, yes, I too cried at the end.