Entertainment

Snow in Sydney as Handa Opera On The Harbour returns

Ho-Yoon Chung and Iulia Maria Dan in Opera Australia’s, La Boheme.

Fifty years after they led marches and strikes that shut down France, the bohemians were back on Friday night but this time the establishment applauded, as Handa Opera On Sydney Harbour returned for its seventh season.

The Fleet Steps at Farm Cove stood in for the Paris of May 1968, as a reimagination of Giacomo Puccini’s La Boheme proved another crowd-pleasing choice after last year’s staging of Carmen at the same pontoon on the water.

The annual outdoor production has become Opera Australia’s main source of first-time ticket buyers to the art form, artistic director Lyndon Terracini said in a post-opening night speech, so there was an emphasis on spectacle in this La Boheme.

Giant wrought-iron lampposts lit a cobble-stoned Parisian street, where the first act’s flowering of young Rodolfo and Mimi’s love was echoed by a street festival, complete with stilt-walkers and a hot-air ballooning clown, as well as the inevitable fireworks.

Chorus members in La Boheme. Chorus members in La Boheme. Prudence Upton

The tragic demise of their relationship in the second act was marked by burning, overturned cars, scattered placards and the wailing siren of a period police van.

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While history records that much of France’s 1968 uprising took place in pleasant weather, Puccini’s 1896 libretto calls for cold so bitter that Rodolfo burns one of his plays to stay warm: “The paper will unfold in ash and genius soar back to its heaven”, he consoles himself.

On a mild night in Sydney, stage director Andy Morton helped the audience suspend its disbelief by dumping ‘snow’ on them throughout, which on closer inspection turned out to be soap suds.

“See, climate change is real!”, union leader turned KPMG partner Paul Howes joked as the white flakes fell spectacularly from bubble machines mounted above.

Despite all the special effects and distractions of an outdoor performance, made worse on Friday night by helicopters buzzing over former US president Barack Obama’s speech at the nearby Art Gallery of NSW, Ho-Yoon Chung as Rodolfo and Iulia Maria Dan as Mimi managed to draw the audience in to their doomed love affair.

Julie Lea Goodwin and John Bolton Wood. Julie Lea Goodwin and John Bolton Wood. Prudence Upton

There was utter silence for the deathbed scene, which remains as devastating as ever.

Meanwhile Julie Lea Goodwin as Musetta and Samuel Dundas as Marcello showed great chemistry in their alternate example of young, irresponsible love.

There is a price to be paid for having Sydney’s stunning skyline as a backdrop to an opera. Moving the production outside means the sound must reach the audience via a speaker system, and with the stage perhaps twice as big as Opera Australia’s usual Sydney home, it was sometimes hard to tell which of the male principles was singing what.

However that singing was faultless, as was the orchestra under conductor Brian Castles-Onion, despite being hidden beneath the stage. When they emerged to join the cast and crew for bows, there were more than 100 people on stage, bringing home the enormity of this production.

Snow falling on the stage. Snow falling on the stage. Hamilton Lund

Not that the guy who pays for most of it was anywhere to be seen. The Gatsby-esque Japanese businessman, musician and philanthopist Haruhisa Handa has, according to Mr Terracini, only once visited the event named for him, and which his International Foundation For Arts and Culture helped conceive.

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