Western Australia’s new opera company Freeze Frame Opera promises to be to opera what 20/20 is to cricket: shaking up the opera experience with shorter, more accessible and exciting operas. The company, founded by soprano Harriet O’Shannessy, has generated much attention in WA and tickets to their debut production of La Bohème sold out before the four-night season opened. Judging from the response on Thursday’s opening night the audience were not disappointed.

Puccini’s verismo opera depiction of 1830’s Parisian Bohemian life was condensed to 90 minutes and updated to the nineties. Director Rachel McDonald emphasised the grittiness and grime of the world of Mimì and Rodolfo.

Freeze Frame OperaFreeze Frame Opera’s La Bohème. Photos © John Marshall, Terrific Pictures

Designer Robbie Harrold’s apartment set was filthy with its pizza boxes, dirty dishes, microwave popcorn and a derelict plastic Christmas tree taking me back to the student common room during my university days. The banter between Rodolfo and his three student flatmates involved food fights, beer, and bongs. Every inch of the small stage at the Camelot Theatre was used and the action often spilled into the audience. In Act 2 the theatre was transformed with a disco ball and fairy lights (Geoff Glencross) into Café Momus where Musetta was a singer and Rodolfo and his friends made a rowdy audience, provoking the owner, and graffitiing obscenities on the chalk board. Musetta poured an entire bottle of champagne over herself during her titillating Quando me’n vo’, much to the disbelieving delight of the audience and the agony of her ex-lover Marcello.

Large sections of orchestral music were cut by music director Tommaso Pollio including the street scenes from Act 2, the orchestral opening to Act 3, the role of Alcindoro and most of the repeats within arias. But the relationships remained intact, and that is the edifice on which La Bohème hangs. Pollio performed Puccini’s condensed score from a baby grand piano, sounding clean, bright and with moments of real tenderness. I admit to being surprised by how well this worked; rather than feeling like the orchestra was missing, the piano instead enhanced the intimate cabaret/music hall feel.

Freeze Frame Opera

Within all of this colour and energy the tumultuous relationship of Mimì and Rodolfo took centre stage thanks to immersive performances by Harriet O’Shannessy and Paul O’Neill. O’Shannessy’s Mimì was shy, sweet and sung with creamy depth, although her diction was missing some consonants. Her whisper-soft phrases in the tragic final act were golden hued. O’Neill also made great use of the intimate acoustics, reining in his quite voluptuous tenor for moments of candid vulnerability, particularly in his duet O buon Marcello. The famous tenor aria Che gelida manina was sung with seemingly endless breath supply and magnificent lingering top notes.

Freeze Frame Opera

Sam Roberts-Smith conveyed a tormented Marcello with a relaxed vocal delivery and mellow buttery tone. Naomi Johns was a gutsy Musetta, stealing the show in all the right ways whenever she was onstage. Paull-Anthony Keightley’s philosophical Colline was a grounding presence and foil to Lachlann Lawton’s drugged, somewhat callous Schaunard.

The cast and director took many liberties with the libretto but the condensed form and colloquial translation did the job of keeping the audience abreast of the banter and poetry unfolding onstage. And the poetic moments were heart wrenching, as out of the filth and anarchy shone humour and compassion, sung with immense beauty and committed acting. Opera at its best!

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