You can only be shocked that way once.
When I attended the opening night of Against the Grain’s La bohème in June, it was thrilling to experience a modern adaptation of this well-worn opera in a downtown Toronto bar, in a very edgy English translation. The bohemians called Benoit a “man-whore”. Musetta –played by Lindsay Sutherland Boal—stole my sunglasses! right off my head! as she worked the room during her big Act II solo. Joel Ivany’s adaptation moved us into present-day Toronto, and it wasn’t just a thrill. It was a happening.
Tonight in December 2011, Against the Grain revived their bohème with largely the same cast. While it was much the same, it was not edgy in the same way. How could it be? That first time was very much against the grain, but now that they’ve proven that this opera actually belongs in a grotty bar? –no offense, Tranzac Club!– it’s not quite so shocking. That first time, I swear there was an element of danger, even a palpable sense of fear emanating from some of the cast; I had wondered if they could even pull it off, and maybe they wondered too.
And they pulled it off.
This time? Ivany (not just the translator & adapter but also the director) with music director – pianist Christopher Mokrzewski took it to the next level.
Mokrzewski was always discreet, playing slowly enough to allow laughs and helping make the singing completely intelligible; and I confess I am very impressed that he played the score while drinking at least a couple of beers during the show. This was a very relaxed interpretation, note-perfect but always clearly articulated.
The two leads are different this time around. Ryan Harper is a remarkable actor, with a genuine comic touch. His Rodolfo was funny throughout, so that when he had those few serious moments, they carried extra weight precisely because of the laughs immediately before. Miriam Khalil’s well-sung Mimi was direct, humble and emotionally grounded, making a fascinating contrast to the emotional flamboyance of Harper’s Rodolfo.
I feel blessed to have had a second look at the other couple, namely Justin Welsh’s Marcello and Lindsay Sutherland Boal’s Musetta. Boal stops the show rather effortlessly whenever she gets the chance, both in Act II and III. If you know bohème and have seen Musetta done by an opera singer –which is to say, someone with a voice and a modicum of acting ability—you probably expect Musetta to take the stage and make something of this moment, as that’s how Puccini wrote it. But I think it might shock you to see just how much magic there is in this scene of imperial seduction, when you let a really good actor who is also a beautiful woman sing it. To watch Boal devour this material is to have a lesson in how to use the stage, although full marks to Ivany for his brilliant use of the space & his cast.
Meanwhile, although Welsh isn’t quite as magical (and who could be?) in the drama department he did make the most consistently lovely sounds throughout. I think he’s relaxed into the role, showing self-assurance while filling the space with his warm mellow voice.
But the funniest performer of the night –possibly because he gets so many great lines or has them hurled at him in this adaptation – is Greg Finney as the landlord Benoit, the funniest drunk I’ve seen in a long time. Mokrzewski somehow managed to slow the scene so that we could laugh without covering the singers or stop the forward movement of the scene; amazing!
Against The Grain’s operatic invasion of the Tranzac continues Friday and Saturday, Dec 2nd and 3rd.