Recent months have seen a concerted effort by Opera Australia to join the ranks of the Royal Opera, the Metropolitan Opera and the Liceu, Barcelona, among others, in getting their productions aired to the widest possible audience. The spring saw a number of productions beamed to cinemas in the UK and now several have been issued on their own label in DVD, Blu-ray and audio CD formats. Opera Britannia reviewed the broadcast of La traviata, shortly to join the CD and DVD catalogue, and I’ve recently had the opportunity to watch two such productions on Blu-ray (also available in DVD format).
I can’t imagine a production of Lakmé as lavish or as traditional as the one served up here. Roger Hodgman directs a production based on one by Adam Cook. It is gorgeous to look at, revelling in bright colours and picturesque sets, a world of lianas and lotus flowers in which a forbidden love is doomed. Much of the blocking is pretty static; Lakmé and Mallika, for example, sing their famous Act I Flower Duet from a seated position, gazing out into the auditorium, before embarking a small boat at the conclusion, which Mallika punts off-stage. The men of the Opera Australia Chorus stand in serried ranks to support Nilakantha in Act II without doing much. It’s the sort of production into which Joan Sutherland would have happily starred and the punters would have been gloriously contented. Still, Lakmé is such a rarity that we have to be grateful for any production on film at all.
The main reason for acquiring this disc would be for the assumption of the title role by Emma Matthews, touted as the new Sutherland. She may share some of the repertoire of La Stupenda, and has received great support from Richard Bonynge, but her voice is very different in its timbre. Matthews has a much richer lyric soprano, especially in her lower register. Her coloratura is incredibly agile and she has all the top notes – the E natural which crowns her rendition of the Bell Song rightly brings the house down. Hers is a sympathetic, wide-eyed portrayal of the daughter of the Brahmin priest Nilakantha, in as far as Hodgman allows any of his characters to engage with each other.
Lakmé’s relationship with Gerald, the English army officer with whom she falls in love, doesn’t really set the pulse racing, not helped by the acting of Aldo Di Toro. Hodgman is at pains in the brief interview included as an extra feature on this disc to point out the buttoned-up attitude of the English, which Delibes was poking fun at in his opera. This, perhaps, goes some way to excusing the tenor’s rudimentary acting, but I’m not so convinced. Vocally, there are some very nice things about Di Toro’s portrayal; he has a light high tenor most suitable for the role, including a slightly nasal tone and decent French diction. His shifts to falsetto are not always convincing – they verge on crooning – but he gives a lovely account of ‘Prendre le dessin d'un bijou’ in Act I.
The rest of the cast is distinctly below par. Stephen Bennett’s Nilakantha struggles with the high tessitura of his role – it’s really more suited to a baritone – and his fist-waving railing against the English never goes beyond the two-dimensional. Dominica Matthews is a suitable foil for her namesake Emma as Mallika, Lakmé’s companion and confidante. The English fare less well on their passage through India; the Frédéric of baritone Luke Gabbedy is weak, though perhaps there’s something authentically Anglo-Saxon inflected about his French; Ellen (Gerald’s intended) isn’t particularly strongly sung or acted by Jane Parkin; Rose and Mistress Bentson are little more than adequate. Emmanuel Joel-Hornak guides the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra through Delibes’ lovely score with considerable flair. Were the singing and direction stronger, this production would satisfy on many levels. See it for the sumptuous sets and costumes. Listen to it for Emma Matthews and Aldo Di Toro alone.
An attractive new production of La bohème is, alas, also let down by a pretty poor cast, save a decent Marcello. Gale Edwards updates the action to 1930s Berlin. One may well wonder why anyone should wish to depart from a Parisian setting, but it is purely, one feels, for the possibility to turn Café Momus into a German cabaret setting, which is by far the most scene-stealing idea in the whole production, especially when the stage revolve sets off in Musetta’s waltz-song. Brian Thomson’s set has the bohemians’ garret in a huge space bounded by a great wall which Marcello is using as his canvas for a mural of The Crossing of the Red Sea. Act III is suitably grim, but could have done without a repeated use of the revolving set.
Most of the characters are as you’d expect, apart from Schaunard, who is as an effete bourgeois, playing at being the poor musician, camping it up from his entrance, with a couple of pretty boys to bring his purchases back to the apartment. Forget Colline’s coat - proceeds from Schaunard’s fur-trimmed coat could have raised enough money for private health care for Mimì for a couple of weeks all by itself! Shane Lowreneev isn’t blessed with a memorable baritone, but does make a memorable characterization.
Colline is sung by David Parkin, whose rather unsteady bass and short-breathed phrasing do nothing for his gem of an Act IV aria. There’s good physicality between the four bohemians, with a well choreographed stage fight in the last act. Of the cameo roles, John Bolton Wood’s Benoit suffers wayward tuning (possibly in character), but it was interesting to see a younger Alcindoro than usual – Adrian Tamburini hardly the ‘old fossil’ Musetta accuses him of being.
Marcello and Musetta have a passionate, violent relationship, epitomised by the end to Act III, where they ‘make up’ most amorously after their quarrel, contrasting with Mimì and Rodolfo parting reluctantly. Taryn Fiebig has a hollow chest register and her Musetta isn’t vocally glamorous, but she has all the looks for the role, her ‘Quando me'n vo’' delivered from a 1930s microphone à la Marlene Dietrich. José Carbó stands head and shoulders above his fellow performers as Marcello, his warm baritone projects well but he also offers a sympathetic portrayal. his contribution to the duet ‘O, Mimì, tu più non torni’ is beautiful, making one wish Marcello had his own aria.
I’ve left the leads until last. A decent Bohème can’t really survive if one of its main protagonists is below par, but when both fail to live up to their roles, there’s clearly a problem in recommending the performance. In this respect, both Rodolfo and Mimì are severe disappointments. I’ve seen Ji-Min Park at Covent Garden (he was a Jette Parker Young Artist) and he’s a likeable enough Gastone in La traviata. He’s even sung Rodolfo there, although to no great acclaim. Park’s is a small tenor voice, too small for Puccini and there’s little variation in colour and no great feel for a poetic line, added to which his Italian isn’t that credible. ‘Che gelida manina’ is visually engaging, but close your eyes and it’s penny-plain. Park strains to produce high notes at any volume and veers dangerously sharp at times. However, it’s the inexpressibility of the phrasing which disappoints most – robbing the aria of its poetry. Puccini roles are clearly a step too far so early in his career, but he acts with sincerity.
His Mimì suffers even more. Takesha Meshé Kizart has a soprano of the right size for Puccini – indeed, she often tackles Mimì as if she were taking on Tosca, but it’s not an attractive voice across its whole range. She suffers from the opposite intonation issues to Park’s Rodolfo, frequently flat, even in middle of her range, with a wild disparity between a big chest register and a thin top… a most disconcerting listen. Her scene with Marcello in Act III contains some ugly sounds, in contrast to the rich flow of baritone sound emanating from Carbó. Kizart’s is an interesting voice, but it needs controlling and moulding into something more beautiful and even throughout her range. Preserving this performance on film does neither her nor Ji-Min Park any great favours.
Puccini’s score is given a spirited rendition by the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra under Shao-Chia Lü, who plots sensible tempi and keeps the finale to Act II, laden with pitfalls, pretty tight. If this production were better cast, it would bear repeated viewing. Sadly, this isn’t a Bohème I’ll be itching to spin again any time soon.
La bohème OPOZ56018BD
Photographs © Branco Gaica