St James Theatre; Aotea Centre
May 10-17; 29-June 7 | Reviewed by Simon Sweetman

La Bohème was first performed in 1896. Since then it’s gain a reputation as a classic opera for all seasons – a simple tale that mixes comedy and tragedy and there are reviews that praise the best casts in the world for running the gamut of emotions, for allowing Puccini’s music to dance. But really, this updated version is a basic cash-cow; a chance to bring some money in by staging a much-loved opera and hopefully luring in all and sundry. Presumably, with a sold-out Wellington season, it has worked.

There is no denying the abilities of the main performers. Antoinette Halloran, as Mimi and Jesus Garcia as Rodolfo hold up to their roles well, likewise Tiffany Speight as Musetta and Marcin Bronikowski as Marcello; but the updated (contemporary) setting leads to some confusion as a setting for the beautiful singing.

La Bohème’s very basic story comes across as insulting to the audience in a modern setting. For a start it is hard to believe the gesture of a struggling poet throwing his verse in to a fire for warmth and to signal his struggle – both for his art and for his warmth – when, moments earlier we were watching it being typed out on a laptop. Surely he can save and print another copy? And Mimi taps on the door to receive a light for her candle. Rodolfo didn’t trip over the chord to his computer on the way to fall madly in love with her as he lit her (hand-held) fire. Just as well, right?

The set for act two, the market/café scene is bursting with liveliness, the chorus clearly relishing the chance to collectively shine, but again, it all seems a little far-fetched having us believe the old-world setting in a modern-day context.

And then, after the intermission, Rodolfo and Mimi are not speaking – though they’re still singing about one another (and occasionally to one another). Shouldn’t a country have gone to war by now?

This simple storyline, Mimi is sick so Rodolfo is sacred of being in love for her – because of what he will lose – is really a bit too rudimentary. Particularly when this production calls for the churched up trappings of a modern life; for if that’s the case the cynicism of the modern life must be applied also. And I just don’t buy it. I felt angry that such amazing singing, and the work of the Chapman Tripp Opera Chorus and Vector Wellington Orchestra in support, went to waste for a paper-thin plot. I don’t get the hook. And sure, the main players conveyed emotion, and yes it was pretty and witty and wise. But it still felt like a rip-off. Plain and simple. A cash-cow designed to lure people in normally scared of opera.