At first glance, La Bohème is the simplest of stories. A poet meets a seamstress. They fall in love. They fight. She dies. The end. But, insists Gale Edwards, director of Opera Australia's lavish new production, it is actually much more than that. "I like to insert my needle into the deeper parts of the story, to find something darker and more complex. When you examine it closely, La Bohème is much more interesting than you might think."
Take the hero, for example, the poet Rodolfo. "He behaves very badly," says Edwards. "Yes, he's tragic, noble and heroic, and we love that; but he's also a flake. He's cowardly and weak."
It might sound like a harsh way to characterise one of the canon's most famous romantic protagonists, but perhaps she has a point. "In act three, when Mimi falls ill, he hates himself for having thrown her out. But it never occurs to him just to get a job, to take care of her, to do the responsible thing. Instead he hides in a tavern with his friend Marcello, all while she's living on the street, or a working as a courtesan."
This intriguing double aspect, nobility and cowardliness, is projected through all the young bohemians in Edwards' production. "I get the feeling that these four boys are very middle class. They're charming. Their sins are the sins of youth. And that's loveable, and we all covet that youthfulness. But their attitude is also contemptible."
And that's the other myth that Edwards is keen to dispense with: that La Bohème is a sweetly romantic opera. "What I really responded to was the destruction of this girl. This girl could find no one to help her; she was forced into prostitution and made to die in the gutter. And she's so very innocent."
These deeper moral tensions are given a spectacular dramatic context as Edwards and her design team transport the action from its original setting in Paris, 1830, to Berlin during the early 1930s - a time of decadence and excess. "I was trying to find a society of enormous freedom and licentiousness," explains Edwards, "a time of excitement and extremes, but a world, too, that would soon be swept away."
What is most impressive in this production, however, is that this effect of darkness and moral complexity is achieved with such effortlessness, even with joy. "That's the Australian in it," laughs Edwards. "Even though it's set in Germany, and it's sung in Italian, and the two stars are American and Korean, I think this is a distinctly Australian production. I tried to capture an ethos of freshness and courage that I think are integral to Australian culture."