Opera for today

12 March 2022

Freeze Frame Opera are the arts community’s first responders, says Rosalind Appleby. And they have done it again, with a production of La Boheme that couldn’t be more pertinent.

La Boheme, Freeze Frame Opera ·
Quarry Ampitheatre, 10 March 2022 ·

Freeze Frame Opera (FFO) are the arts community’s first responders. When COVID-19 first hit two years ago they pivoted on a dime and within weeks were providing work for singers and balm for audiences, with their socially distanced street performances from the back of a truck.

This year, as COVID’s Omicron variant destabilises life in WA even further, Freeze Frame Opera have produced a cathartic production of La Boheme that couldn’t be more pertinent to our current experience.

Down a singer (Teddy Tahu Rhodes was kept out by the border closure), scrambling to adjust to last minute 50% capacity limits and with COVID approaching its peak in WA, it was a minor miracle that none of the cast or creatives had COVID and the show went ahead. I shake my head in wonder at the incredible efforts of artists as they continue to bring us their art.

La Boheme, Puccini’s window into the love life of 19th century Parisian Bohemians, was FFO’s first full opera production in 2017. This new production, with Penny Shaw making her directorial debut, retains the company’s irreverent approach: the opera is cut from 135 minutes to 90, the libretto significantly updated to reflect the setting in contemporary Paris, and there is the (scandalous to the purists) addition of French cabaret songs to open each act.

Two character from FFO perform on stage together. They are a man and woman dressed in coats and scarves hold each other's arms as they sing on a blue lit dark stage
Harriet Marshall and Paul O’Neill as Mimi and Rodolfo in FFO’s new production of ‘La Boheme’. Photo John Marshall

Here’s the twist: the love-lives of the Bohemians are complicated not just by poverty but also by COVID-19. And its not just toilet paper shortages; Mimi has health complications which jeopardise her relationship with Rodolfo because she should be isolating. In the original 1910 opera Mimi suffers from TB, but Shaw’s recontextualization helps us find greater empathy for the suffering of these characters whose medical vulnerability, until recently, felt so far removed.

The result of all this irreverent interference with Puccini’s original? A production that reignites the power of opera, and cuts to the quick of life today.

The audience are relaxed in the outdoor setting of the Quarry Ampitheatre and there are plenty of laughs as Rodolfo and his mates horse around with TikTok dance moves and Harry Potter pencil duels on the square elevated stage that designer Robbie Harold utilises as a bachelor pad. Using simple props the stage is transformed to the Café Momus where Mimi’s friend Musetta (an “Influencer”) gives a risqué performance live-streamed on Instagram, but intended solely for her ex-lover Marcello.

To one side on the stage is a trio of electronic piano (Tommaso Pollio), accordion (Cathie Travers) and cello (Sophie Curtis). The unique musical combination works brilliantly – within moments of hearing the plaintive accordion we are transported to Paris. Pollio’s evocative arrangements allocate the bulk of the orchestral heft to the piano while cello and accordion weave flexibly between glittering woodwind-esque solos, sustained drones and soul-searching solos.

A FFO performer for the Opera La Boheme. Pictured a woman in a dark coat with cream flecks on it sings into a microphone
Caitlin Cassidy sets the scene for each act with her French chanson. Photo John Marshall

Harriet Marshall reprises the role of Mimi, with Paul O’Neill again as her Rodolfo. Marshall seems more centred in the role, her voice as creamily smooth as ever and her natural expressiveness delightfully relatable. At the peak of their passionate duets O’Neill’s thrilling tenor seems to fill the starry expanse above our heads, and his intimate tenderness is just as compelling.

Rachelle Durkin’s flamboyant stage presence and razor sharp soprano technique are the perfect combination for the self-confident Musetta while Lachlan Lawton is secure and sympathetic as her ever-faithful lover Marcello. Lachlan Higgins (an animated Schaunard) and Jake Bigwood (the philosopher Colline) round out an impressive supporting cast.

A surprise addition is mezzo soprano Caitlin Cassidy as the singer Phemie, a role created for the production. Her French cabaret songs set the scene for each act, sung with increasing intensity as she expresses for all of us the experience of living in a world of uncertainty and insecurity. The wrenching performance of her final song, Ne me quitte pas has the audience in a puddle at her feet.

In the Act that follows, the libretto’s COVID references (“the hospitals are full and they turned us away”, “she needs a ventilator”) no longer draw the laughs. As Puccini’s tragedy unfolds it is all too close to home.

And this is the other minor miracle; that an Italian opera from 1910, inspired by Henri Murger’s novel from 1851, belongs so clearly to us today. The love, laughter and heartbreaking loss feel so real. But perhaps it is not such a surprise for those of us who know the transcendence of great art, delivered by exceptional artists.

Freeze Frame Opera’s next performance is La Fanciulla del West, 19-27 August 2022.

Pictured top: Musetta (Rachelle Durkin) performs for her Instagram fans while Mimi (Harriet Marshall), Rodolfo (Paul O’Neill) and friends look on. Photo: John Marshall

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Author —
Rosalind Appleby

Rosalind is an arts journalist, author and speaker. She was co-managing editor and founding board member of Seesaw Magazine 2018 – 2023, is author of Women of Note, and has written for The West Australian, The Guardian, The Australian, Limelight magazine and Opera magazine (UK). She loves park percussion instruments.

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