After the untimely passing of Salvatore Licitra, touted the “new Pavarotti”, in a motor-scooter accident earlier this month, I hardly dare suggest anyone as potential successor to the lyric tenor of the finest Italian tradition, lest he be jinxed. Yet, I would be doing a great disservice to Mexican tenor Diego Torre if I didn’t even make a passing mention of his possible candidacy.

Taryn Fiebig © Jeff Busby
Taryn Fiebig
© Jeff Busby

As Rodolfo in Opera Australia’s production of La Bohème on Tuesday, Mr Torre proved himself not only a fine singer, but a talented actor. His lower range may not be quite as deep, but his upper register is just as silky as Pavarotti’s. His voice is poignant rather than impassioned, and his stage presence palpable.

One the beauties of La Bohème, and a reason for its enduring popularity, is that it has a cast of four well-defined main characters who carry the simple story forward in four clearly demarcated acts. Penurious but magnanimous author Rodolfo falls head over heels in love with sickly seamstress Mimì; his flatmate, the painter Marcello, re-unites with a flirtatious old flame Musetta and is soon consumed by intense jealousy. Marcello and Musetta’s unlikely union collapses at the same time as Rodolfo parts with Mimì so that she can find a better-heeled benefactor, only for her to return to die in his arms.

Mr Torre as Rodolfo ran through the spectrum of emotions, from infatuation for Mimì’s languid beauty in Act I (“Che gelida manina” – “How Cold Your Hands”) to despair at her premature expiry in the finale. His wailing as he holds the motionless Mimì is so heart-wrenching that the curtain drops abruptly, as if to spare the audience further agony.

Matching the character’s demure frailty, Hyeseoung Kwon’s Mimì was physically ethereal, and she mastered the nuances of tenderness with finely honed inflections. Jacqueline Mabardi as Musetta, by contrast, was rough around the edges, almost vulgar rather than coquettish. Her famous waltz was coarse and overdone. As a result, her composure in the finale was a little far-fetched.

Andrew Moran as Marcello was a little placid, but compared to the impetuous firebrand Musetta, he could hardly have come across as anything but impassive. His tone was steady and controlled, well suited to Marcello’s disposition. The dramatic contrast was unmistakable, though. As Rodolfo and Mimì took their time in a long farewell in Act III, Marcello and Musetta quarreled in the background.

Puccini offers plenty of scope for imaginative staging. Director Gale Edwards took the bait with vigour. Moving the action from the Quartier Latin of Paris in the 1830s to Berlin between the two world wars, she fully exploited the open field of debauched hedonism, especially in Café Momus in Act II. Among the flashy decadence were touches of burlesque, the seeds of which were sown in Act I with the landlord Benoit and the musician Schaunard, which in Act II were fully developed in all their gaudy allure.

In Brian Thomson’s set, even the garret in which the artists were supposed to suffer in frigid poverty was a spectacle, with murals as high as two stories and three-level bunk beds. The wire meshes that stood at least twenty feet high in Act III didn’t wobble. The transformation into the swirling Café Momus, with balconies and flashing lights, was smooth and natural.

The music was captivating. Brian Castles-Onion’s direction of the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra was well timed and expressively in step with the mood on stage – a safety net which snugly embraced the singers. The cast was far too well nourished to be gaunt bohemians, but then good singers don’t come in small sizes.

On the 110th anniversary of the work’s première in Melbourne, Opera Australia’s latest La Bohème stands tall among the rest.