WA Opera’s Opera in the Park                                                                                                                  La Boheme                                                                                                                                                Review: Rosalind Appleby

It’s pretty hard not to be moved by a Puccini opera. On Saturday night as dusk settled over the Supreme Court Gardens more than 15 000 people sat transfixed as the love story of La Boheme unfolded.

Puccini’s opera about love and loss in 19th century Bohemian Paris was a good choice for WA Opera’ annual Opera in the Park. The story line is as accessible as you can get for opera: it follows the relationship ups and downs of two couples coloured by the personalities of their artistic friends and tainted by the challenges of poverty. The witty libretto (by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacoso) mixes passionate poetry with lover’s quarrels and Puccini’s sumptuously romantic music is the beating heart.

Large screens and speaker towers brought the action up close and personal for picnickers in the Gardens and to regional venues around the state. In fact the amplification was a little too loud at times, causing audience members to cover their ears and the otherwise excellent sound quality to deteriorate. But at least it (mostly) drowned out the rock music drifting in from the bars down the street.

Paul ONeill La Boheme
Paul O’Neill sang Rodolfo

Once Mimi and Rodolfo took to the stage the distractions evaporated. The central characters, both ex-Perth singers, had chemistry from the moment of their meeting. Paul O’Neill was a besotted Rodolfo, singing with all the heartfelt passion required for a romantic Italian opera. His top notes were lush and unstrained, his whispers intimate. Elena Perroni, in her first Australian professional engagement, sang with a focused pearly soprano that had fragility but bloomed wonderfully when required.

Director Stuart Maunder made the most of minimal props and curtains to tell the story on a stage elevated behind the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. The market scene was  created by a delighted children’s chorus carrying helium balloons and the WA Opera Chorus bustling around alfresco tables. Here Rachelle Durkin worked her coloratura magic as the coquettish Musetta, flirting desperately to win Marcello’s attention. James Clayton was marvellous as the tormented Marcello, singing with particularly luxuriant tone. The chorus numbers were excellent, quite an achievement given the difficulty in maintaining a balanced sound when amplifying moving groups of people.

The camaraderie between Rodolfo’s bohemian buddies is often one of the highlights of this opera and the well-seasoned combination of O’Neill, Clayton, Paull-Anthony Keightley (Colline), and Mark Alderson (Schaunard) didn’t disappoint. There was banter, scuffles and a mock duel with a bread stick and a sword. And shared grief as the friends gathered around Mimi’s sick bed at the opera’s tragic conclusion.

Supporting and propelling the entire evening was the WA Symphony Orchestra playing Puccini’s orchestral score in all its emotional detail. Conductor Brad Cohen kept the tempo unflagging and the cohesion between singers and orchestra was immaculate – helped I’m sure by the new stage arrangement with the singers elevated above the orchestra and able to maintain eye contact.

It was a night of lavish and heart stopping entertainment – opera at its best, shared by an audience of thousands. La Boheme will go down as one of the best Operas in the Park for a long time.