Co-Opera, a company which aims to bring accessible and exciting opera to new and existing audiences throughout Australia, has, through a project called “Intermezzo”, developed a performance of Puccini’s La bohème which gives young artists the chance to perform major roles otherwise unavailable to them. They have engaged Italian baritone with internationl experience, Mario Bellanova, as director and he has succeeded.

Victoria Coxhill (Mimì) and Branko Lovrinov (Rodolfo) © Lester Wong
Victoria Coxhill (Mimì) and Branko Lovrinov (Rodolfo)
© Lester Wong

Bohème, a popular melodic opera, covers four events in the lives (and death) of a group of young bohemians, still free from responsibility and zesting for life. It celebrates the excitement and joy of first love, the agony of uncertainty, the tentativeness of making up, the bonding in times of trial and, ultimately, the reality of death. It tells a tale easy to relate to, more attuned to emotion than reasoned argument, contrasting between coldness and warmth, progressing from the dark of a moonlit Christmas Eve, through to dawn at the Barrier d’Enfer, then finally the brightness of daylight in the garret room where Mimì lays dying. Puccini’s music catches the mood of each situation, most remarkably his suggestion of falling snow and chilling landscape at the Hell’s Gate border commencing Act 3.

This Bohème was impressive, some performers outstanding, none more so than Victoria Coxhill, a strong, sweet soprano, with a commanding voice in her first ‘big’ role. I predict she will go far. Her Mimì suggested a sweet girl from next door, confident in her own skin, full of poise and skilfully nuanced singing. Her Act 1 “Sì, mi chiamano Mimì”, her Act 3 farewell to Rodolfo, and her Act 4 reminiscing with him of their first meeting were remarkably appealing. More impressive was that this was her role debut.

Branko Lovrinov, an expressive Rodolfo, brought an endearingly sweet flavoured voice which blended beautifully in his duets, first with Mimì, and then Marcello. Touching was his “Che gelida manina!” as he led Mimì to a chair, powerful, in volume and expression, his dramatic full throated “La speranza” to end this defining solo.

Daniel Smerdon (Marcello) and Branko Lovrinov (Rodolfo) © Lester Wong
Daniel Smerdon (Marcello) and Branko Lovrinov (Rodolfo)
© Lester Wong

Daniel Smerdon delighted as Marcello, with attractive lively singing and acting. From the opening scene, shuddering with cold in their garret room, frustrated with his love life and his painting, his singing was expressive and commanding. He impressed at the Café Momus. To feign indifference as Musetta made her presence obvious, he held a newspaper to his face (and I’m sure it was no accident that prominent on the side facing the audience was a large advertisement for Aspro). I enjoyed best his poignant duet with Rodolfo at the start of Act 4 – two love sick youths pining for absent girlfriends – mercifully interrupted by the arrival of Schaunard with their lunch.

Schaunard, well sung by James Moffatt, an Elder Conservatorium graduate who has performed with Co-Opera in both Australia and Germany, and developed a strong association with the burgeoning Adelaide Fringe. With marvellous control of an impressive strong baritone and a good acting presence, he ensured a powerful interpretation of the role.

Christian Evans sang a soft voiced yet confident Colline, outstanding in his touching farewell to his coat “Vecchia zimarra”. As he hugged his coat, intending to sell it for medicine for the ailing Mimì, he stood motionless centre stage, and sang to it as he might to his lover. It made a powerful impression, with the orchestra intensifying the emotionally impact.

Katrina Mackenzie, also making her debut with Co-Opera singing Musetta, began tentatively, her voice slightly strident, her face expressing intolerance and anger, her pouting lips an indication she wanting to get her own way... and clearly that was to be rid of the ageing Alcindoro, then reunited with the resistant Marcello. She became more relaxed as she sang her “Quando m'en vo” waltz, centre stage with spotlight picking out her every move. The further the opera progressed, the more confident she became. Finally, having given the dying Mimì her muff to keep warm, she sat quietly at the table praying her rosary, Marcello beside her.

Throughout this production there were many expressively crafted tableaux. Act 3, for example, ended creating a striking contrast between Mimì and Rodolfo lovingly united on one side of the stage, Musetta and Marcello on the other side hurling insults at each other. Most dramatic was the concluding tableau depicting Colline and Schaunard hugging each other in grief, Musetta, rosary in hand, being comforted by Marcello, and Rodolfo kneeling beside his Mimì lying dead on her couch. As the orchestra played the final bars the silently sobbing of Rodolfo was the only movement on stage. A powerful, dramatic close.