It’s been attempted before: taking that well-known and perhaps overly-familiar opera, Puccini’s La bohème, and reinventing it. Baz Luhrmann tried it with some success. So did Jonathan Larson, with Rent (another success).
You can’t blame people for wanting to attempt to tease something new out of Bohème, when it’s already one of the most popular operas.
Arguably an opera this familiar needs a makeover. As far as I can tell, that’s the raison d’être for Against the Grain Theatre, a new company that has sprung to life in the past few months.
If you know the Tranzac Club on Brunswick Ave you might wonder how opera could be presented there.
How? A purist might be aghast at the idea of sitting with your beer, listening to Bluegrass (a charming ensemble called Houndstooth) just before the opera. The Tranzac club is a very unpretentious establishment, not to be confused with an opera house. Does the word “opera” conjure people dressed up for the evening? And please excuse me, that’s not what opera is to me, particularly considering the many attempts by directors & producers to break free from that image; but the stereotype is still a useful and relevant departure point. If you understand opera as a precious flower too delicate to be uprooted from its native soil in the opera house among the usual audience, perhaps the Tranzac club won’t work for you. It’s ironic considering that La bohème is above all, an opera about poverty, about people unable to afford heat in their home with barely enough to eat. Trucking out Rodolfo and Mimi in fake rags in a splendid theatre before rich patrons is a rather troubling notion when you think about it.
Happily we have another option. Against the Grain gave us something completely different.
We brought our drinks into the performance space –more of a beerhall than a theatre—seating perhaps 100, with a full house of sympathetic patrons. The Spartan set & costumes suggested poverty before we heard the first words from Rodolfo & Marcello, cold & hungry before our very eyes. Sung with piano accompaniment, we heard a very edgy new English translation adapted by director Joel Ivany. Marcello’s declaration, I’m freezing cold here” becomes “it’s fucking cold in here.” Benoit gets called a man-whore. These aren’t gratuitous, but rather attempts to make the opera live. And so our bohemians have an instantaneous authenticity in the grungy old bar.
It doesn’t hurt, also, that the singers are young and attractive. Adam Luther is a handsome young Rodolfo capable of a lovely sound and reaching all the high notes with ease, surrounded by an equally youthful group of bohemians, . Laura Albino plays a darkly serious Mimi, unpretentious and still. When her passion comes to the surface, as it does in her arias, she gives us something extraordinary. She’s a Mimi who finds the delicate balance between the humble seamstress only wishing her artificial flowers could live, and the bubbly exuberance of a woman newly in love.
Justin Welsh’s Marcello was a likeable fellow, with a mellow sound and no malice, reminding me a bit of Anthony Quinn as Gaugin (in Lust for Life). Lindsay Sutherland Boal brought a genuine glamour to Musetta. I came to this show, knowing it was to be set in this bar-space, hoping that the scene in the Café Momus would be especially lively when played to an audience also sitting at tables with drinks. When the café scene really clicks, we should be unable to take our eyes off Musetta in her big scene in Act II, and that’s precisely how it was. While Musetta seductively toyed with Marcello, Ivany was playing with us, making the entire audience crane their necks to follow Boal around the room.
Against the Grain’s production of La bohème continues for three more performances this week, namely Friday-Sunday, June 3, 4, and 5 at 8 pm, at The Tranzac Club.