A little bit of Paris comes to Sydney in the latest Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour
Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour is Opera Australia artistic director Lyndon Terracini’s big success story. The massive annual outdoor event seemed insurmountably ambitious when it arrived in 2012: a complete opera staged on an enormous floating outdoor stage in front of a pop-up grandstand for 3,000 spectators. But it’s now become a signature Sydney spectacle, attracting audiences somewhere in the vicinity of 40,000 to 50,000 each year, many of whom have never attended an opera before. Some purists may gripe, but there’s a decent amount of artistic integrity each year, and it ticks every box imaginable for a Great Night Out.
But translating material written for indoor theatres to a larger outdoor space is a significant challenge, both artistic and logistically. Plus, there are only so many operas that are beloved enough to attract a major crowd that also lend themselves to this kind of spectacle. Opera Australia is now reaching a point where it’s ticked off most of the biggies, and will have to be cunning with programming decisions in the next few years.
This year’s choice is Puccini’s enduring masterpiece La boheme, the story of Rodolfo (Ho-Yoon Chung), a poor writer who falls deeply in love with the frail but beautiful seamstress, Mimi (Iulia Maria Dan). At the same time his best friend and roommate, the artist Marcello (Samuel Dundas) reunites with a former flame, the fiery and capricious singer, Musetta (Julie Lea Goodwin). The two pairs of lovers struggle with just about everything you can struggle with in 19th century France: poverty, sickness, jealousy, the pursuit of great art and what we might now call a “housing crisis”.
It’s an opera with big emotional impact, but is mostly played out in intimate scenes. Director Andy Morton, who’s served as assistant director for the last five years of the event, has made a valiant effort, but can’t quite bring the young bohemians’ burning hot love to vivid life in this overblown setting. He mostly finds a way to draw the audience’s attention to where it need be and make the space feel as intimate as possible, but there are instances – particularly an awkward scene change in the first two minutes, and then a few moments in Cafe Momus – when things go completely awry and focus is lost.
Morton has moved the action forth from Paris in the early 19th century to Paris in the swinging ‘60s. More specifically 1968, when mass protests broke out across the city, almost tipping into full-blown civil war. It’s not a particularly profound update and the civil unrest isn’t explored at all, but it does mean designer Dan Potra can go crazy with the glamour of the 1960s in one scene and still conjure up a sense of youthful rebellion the next. Plus, he’s able to romantically drop unseasonable snow all over the stage and the audience in the intermission. His versatile set features a massive cobblestoned streetscape with a loft right in the middle; cartoony videos are projected onto the windows of the loft. Potra and Morton manage the shifts in tone and setting effectively, but there’s a bit of gratuitous and pointless – and all too common in the opera world – objectification of women’s bodies worked into the third act.
Thankfully the performances are excellent across the board and the musical elements come together beautifully under conductor Brian Castles-Onion, who draws a wonderfully dynamic reading of the score from the Opera Australia Orchestra. There’s astonishing synergy between the singers onstage and the musicians hidden underneath it, and it’s all brilliantly served by sound designer Tony David Cray. The voices are occasionally a little over-amplified, but there’s great clarity in his work.
As Mimi and Rodolfo, Romanian soprano Iulia Maria Dan (who alternates the role with Maija Kovalevska) and Korean tenor Ho-Yoon Chung (sharing with Paul O’Neill) are well matched. Dan has a robust and richly textured voice (it’s a bigger sound than most of the singers who’ve played Mimi in Sydney in recent years) and never overplays the character’s waifish quality. Chung is a vocal showman and never wastes an opportunity to pull out his thrilling, ringing top notes, but he also brings dramatic heft.
As Musetta and Marcello, local singers Julie Lea Goodwin (she’s doing every performance – what a trooper) and Samuel Dundas (who shares the role with Christopher Tonkin) all but steal the show. Her Musetta’s waltz, performed in Potra’s sparkliest creation, is pure diva heaven, and she brings a gorgeous sensitivity to the fourth act, while Dundas is perfectly at home in his role and has an excellent connection with Goodwin throughout.
Australian bass Richard Anderson also makes a big impact with ‘Vecchia zimarra’, the philosopher Colline’s heart-wrenching fourth act aria.
As is the case every year, there are fireworks – though surprisingly little dancing despite having the wonderful Kate Champion as choreographer – but the singers almost outshine that spectacle this time around. They manage to make Opera Australia’s most ambitious event still feel exciting in its seventh year.
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