Opera Australia ringing in 2019 with a revival of Gale Edwards’ production of Puccini’s La Bohème is not what you would call an exciting choice. However, even the most seasoned, sceptical operagoer would find plenty to love in this latest run, thanks to a strong cast of unusual conviction and youthful energy.

Samuel Dundas, Taras Berezhansky, Shane Lowrencev, Joyce El-Khoury and Ivan Magrì. Photo © Keith Saunders

But first a brief word about the production itself, of which much ink has already been spilled. While the transplant to 1930s Berlin is visually ravishing, it remains vague on the impetus behind this choice, the political ramifications of the time largely untapped. See John Bell’s production of Tosca for OA for a much stronger example of an update that feels both organic and earnt. Rather, the longevity of Edwards’ staging flows from its fine understanding of Puccini’s characters and their motivations, crafted with care and bearing many small touches that speak volumes. When Musetta and Mimì first meet in the hubbub of Café Momus, Musetta warmly takes the other’s hands in her own and admires her new pink hat, Mimì shyly smiling back at this outsized, glamorous stranger. It’s a tender, brief moment of female connection that not only gives their later friendship greater import, but also points to their natural sympathy as young women with few options in society. Moments like these make Edwards’ production feel vital.

Joyce El-Khoury and Ivan Magrì. Photo © Keith Saunders

Of course, a quality cast certainly helps, and this run of Bohème has just that. In her anticipated company debut, the Canadian soprano Joyce El-Khoury offered up a lovely, uniquely intense Mimì. Her complex instrument, smoky and rich with an intriguing metallic tang, was deployed with consistent musicality and intelligence, shading down to the finest pianissimi. Most memorable of all was her freshness of insight, on ample display in the anguish of Act III. In the closing duet with Rodolfo, where the lovers reflect on their relationship in intended parting, most sopranos invest Mimi`’s lines (“goodbye, doubts and jealousies…suspicions…sadness”) with a sorrow that undercuts their emotional barb. El-Khoury’s Mimì was less forgiving, the set of her jaw and the edge of bitterness in her voice making explicit the pain of Rodolfo’s possessiveness. Equally compelling was the crucial duet with Marcello, the soprano depicting a woman torn between embarrassment at having to air her dirty laundry in public and her desperation to rescue an increasingly unviable relationship. Few find such nuance in a character so often played straightforwardly sympathetic – El-Khoury’s Mimì is one to cherish.

Samuel Dundas and Ivan Magrì. Photo © Keith Saunders 

Also making his company debut was Italian tenor Ivan Magrì, a Rodolfo both boyish and emphatically heart on sleeve. His bright, lyrical instrument provided a nice counterpart to El-Khoury’s darker soprano, and though there was some tightness up top, and a propensity to launch into phrases when they could be approached more elegantly, this last only felt in keeping with his character’s excitable nature. Che gelida manina was dispatched with a sweetness of tone and intimacy that bordered on the conversational, certain phrases almost murmured before a triumphant vault to that tricky money note. Elsewhere, Magrì conveyed Rodolfo’s torment in Act III so effectively you nearly forgave his ill-conceived plan to remove Mimì from poverty.

Anna Princeva and Andrew Moran. Photo © Keith Saunders 

Just as compelling was the opera’s other couple, Marcello and Musetta, elevated from amusing foils to key actors in the drama. Russian soprano Anna Princeva, who impressed as Nedda in her company debut in 2017, is here reunited with her Silvio, Australian baritone Samuel Dundas. They brought a similar chemistry here, both of them fine actors who also offered originality of insight. Anna Princeva’s penetrating, silvery soprano made short work of Musetta’s Waltz, while her disdain for elderly admirer Alcindoro bordered on actual malice, an unexpectedly delightful choice. This was a hardscrabble Musetta, not the more wholesome, fun-loving incarnation audiences are used to seeing. This edgier take on the character made her later selflessness and despair for the dying Mimì all the more effective, Princeva presenting a Musetta of real depth. While his voice didn’t always cut through Puccini’s substantial orchestrations, Dundas’ Marcello was both engaging and charismatic, convincingly driven to distraction by Musetta. His rapport with Magrì’s Rodolfo was obvious, amusing and touching by turns, and his decency and open-hearted sympathy for Mimì in their conversation in Act III was just right.

Ivan Magrì, Shane Lowrencev, Samuel Dundas and Taras Berezhansky. Photo © Keith Saunders 

Completing the quartet of students was Ukrainian bass Taras Berezhansky’s Colline and company stalwart Shane Lowrencev’s Schaunard. Berezhansky made his OA debut last year as Sparafucile, and his stylish, subtle turn here as the philosopher of the group only reaffirmed my favourable impression of the singer. It’s a beautifully weighty instrument that has exciting repertoire options ahead of it, and for once the Coat Aria felt like an affecting moment of sacrifice rather than an irritating hold up to the drama. Lowrencev’s Schaunard is a well-known quantity by now, but his sheer enthusiasm and dextrous wit keep things feeling as fresh as ever. Both singers make strong contributions, thoroughly moving as students whose lives have been invaded by tragedy but who can’t do much more than bear witness.

Joyce El-Khoury and Ivan Magrì. Photo © Keith Saunders 

Benjamin Northey, freshly announced as Limelight’s Australian Artist of the Year: People’s Choice, once again shows his worth in the pit. He drew forth a remarkably sensitive reading from the Opera Australia Orchestra, cleanly and expressively shaped with steady attention paid to singers’ needs. When El-Khoury suffused her voice with joy as she sang of spring’s first rays, you could feel the sun’s warmth emanate back to her from the players.

Puccini was an undoubted master tugger of heartstrings, and the most routine, flat performance in the world is probably unable to rob the closing moments of Bohème of its pathos. When you’ve got singers and playing of this quality, time in the theatre is suspended and Mimì’s death is a fresh tragedy once more.

Opera Australia’s La Bohème is at the Joan Sutherland Theatre until March 28. Certain artists alternate performances