The Canadian Opera Company opened their 2013-2014 season tonight with Puccini’s La Bohème at the Four Seasons Centre. It’s a new COC co-production with Houston Grand Opera & San Francisco Opera directed by John Caird & designed by David Farley.
Like anyone who has seen a lot of Bohèmes, I enter the theatre wanting the familiar score to somehow seem fresh and new. While I am open to directorial intervention, I hope it won’t come between me and the many favourite moments the opera promises.
Given that almost impossible challenge – of making the familiar new while still preserving the favourite moments—I am pleased to report that Caird & Farley have accomplished something so remarkable as to verge on the miraculous. I would say to the cynics who are Boheme-phobic that you should try this production, as it delivers many of the delights you had when your first experienced the opera. This one defamiliarizes you just enough in places to make it feel new.
Because their concept comes from within the text, it is so reasonable as to be almost invisible. I am sure many viewers didn’t even notice.
Caird explains it in his program note this way:
For this production, designer David Farley and I have chosen to imagine that the characters of he opera may act as our inerpreters. If Schaunard, the composer, is represented in the pit by Puccini himself, the scenic world that the bohemians inhabit is as if painted by Marcello. Every surface of he set is a canvas drawn from the same rich and chaotic pictorial world as that of Toulouse-Lautrec—a contemporary of Puccini and an artist who was himself obsessed by the bohemian underworld of Paris.
The resulting effect has a surprising depth. Rodolfo isn’t just writing, but also in effect telling the story of the opera, as when Mimi sings her reminiscence of their first meeting off the pages she finds in his hand. When Schaunard has his one genuinely musical moment in the life of the opera –listening to a merchant play an instrument he was considering for purchase at the beginning of Act II (and dismissing with the line “Falso questo Re”—Caird makes sure that there’s actually someone blasting an out-of-tune note.
Marcello does the lion’s share of underpinning the concept. In each scene we see a set made up largely of paintings as if to suggest glimpses of the bohemian world through the eyes of an artist. Marcello often paints as he observes this world, right down to the last magical moments of the opera. This perspective alienates us just a tiny bit, distancing us oh so slightly, giving us a brand new perspective. But if you were a real painter watching Mimi die, you’d be moved, but you’d also be capturing it with your brush or pencil.
It helps that the cast are youthful and beautiful to look at. Dimitri Pittas offers a method-style Rodolfo, feeling his way from the inside of each lyrical moment, including a very convincing last scene. Grazia Doronzio is a sympathetic Mimi, very musical but powerful when necessary. Joshua Hopkins –as Marcello our conceptual painter, and the one whose part seems most different from the usual—was every bit as lyrical as Pittas. Joyce El-Khoury’s Musetta was one of the classiest Musetta’s I’ve ever seen, side-stepping many of the usual mannerisms, and avoiding the mugging & over-acting that often mars Act II of Boheme. We didn’t get the usual laugh upon her appearance, but instead a red-hot moment of eye contact between her and Hopkins.
There are several moments that dodge the clichés. Speaking of the directorial concept, I believe the one time we are reminded overtly of Colline’s calling as a philosopher –when Schaunard alludes to Socrates, leading most Collines to loudly bray “qui”—Caird chose to do something subtler. Christian Van Horn, possessed of a lovely rich bass voice opted to almost whisper in the place where others shout.
Van Horn and Phillip Addis as Schaunard inhabit the comical centre of gravity for most of the opera, allowing Pittas & Hopkins to be more serious. The cast shows a wonderful sense of depth, strong top to bottom, partly because Addis and El-Khoury change roles later in the run, as Addis becomes the painter Marcello, while El-Khoury becomes Mimi. In other words there are no weak voices anywhere in this cast.
Carlo Rizzi conducts the COC orchestra. The tempi for the first two acts were on the fast side –how I prefer it usually—although this made the task of the children’s chorus in Act II especially challenging; they came through wonderfully. In Act III, though, Rizzi slowed things down, making the series of emotional duets very clear & emotionally powerful.
Yes yes I cried, both in Act III and IV. It felt very fresh and new, so I suppose I was particularly vulnerable. El-Khoury is very take-charge in the last act, which is how I believe Musetta’s written. The sequence of discoveries through the cast at the end, from Addis through Hopkins, and then with the exchange among the other three was very simple and direct, Rizzi bringing things to a gorgeous conclusion.
It’s a wonderful way to start the COC’s new season. The Canadian Opera Company’s production of La Bohème continues until October 30th including some cast changes. Click photo below for additional information.