Old-fashioned Boheme

Tonight was the opening performance of the Canadian Opera Company’s revival of John Caird’s production of La Boheme directed by Katherine M. Carter. As with their earlier return to Atom Egoyan’s Cosi fan tutte a few months ago, the concept wasn’t as tyrannical the second time around, allowing the opera to get back to what it used to be, to work more like usual.

In other words we were watching star performances vying for our attention, Puccini’s wonderful melodies & a sentimental story that can make you cry.

Much of the action is sophomoric, scenes that could be subtitled “boys will be boys:” that is until romance rears its head with the arrival of Mimi. The opera is so well-written that it can’t miss, each performer getting their moments to shine, with a few variations.

I’ve seen a lot of Bohemes in my life, sometimes more realistic in the characterizations, sometimes more operatic, relying on the music to make the biggest statements. This cast is an interesting combination of both approaches.

In the last act everyone is mostly leaning towards that operatic approach –as you might gather from my headline—in readings that are less realistic than operatic, the voices all quite good. Carter reconciles the performances with the concept, so that the images around the stage don’t jar the way they did when Caird first showed us his reading of Boheme.

Atalla Ayan is the impetuous poet Rodolfo, Lucas Meachem is Marcello the painter. Ayan had a lovely Italianate sound & all the high notes you could ask for. Meachem gives us a commanding Marcello, owning the stage every time he wanted our attention with a powerful presence and a bigger voice than one often gets: although I’ve heard it said that Marcello is almost written like a helden baritone. We had the luxury of lots of sound in our Marcello, allowing for a fascinating contrast between the two men, one commanding the other more of a real poet.

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Angel Blue and Atalla Ayan (photo: Michael Cooper)

While I used to focus on the music I spoke of as sophomoric –when I was more of a kid myself—with maturity I’ve gradually changed my understanding of the opera, so that Mimi has come to be my favourite character every time she’s on stage. Angel Blue was remarkably original for two acts, accomplishing that miracle in a well-known story like this one, where you dare to dream of a different outcome (which is ridiculous of course). Hers was a youthful & innocent Mimi, giggling and cheerful in ways I haven’t seen in a long while, when so many play her as doomed and tragic. Even in Act III, when the eventual outcome becomes unavoidable, she made a great deal of her encounter with Rodolfo.

Andriana Chuchman’s Musetta was the perfect match for Meachem’s Marcello, every bit as charismatic as he had been and beautifully sung.

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(l-r) Lucas Meachem, Angel Blue (background), Atalla Ayan (photo: Michael Cooper)

You might say that Brandon Cedel as Colline & Phillip Addis as Schaunard were a bit out of step with the others, because their acting was so naturalistic & believable. If this was a problem for me, it was only in the last moment of the opera, when Addis’s response to Mimi’s death totally slayed me, and then the more melodramatic work by everyone else onstage, while normal for this opera, left me cold. But I had tears during Blue’s Act I aria and again in the wonderful duet between her and Ayan in Act III. So it works in some places better than others.  It’s a Boheme with a little something for everyone, gorgeous to look at and beautifully sung.

One other major player had a big impact on the performance, namely conductor Paolo Carignani. I recall once long ago hearing (third hand, quoted from Ernesto Barbini) the assessment that Boheme is the hardest of all operas to conduct, because tempi have to be so variable, sensitive to solos, ensembles, duets, with rubato and nuance and flow. At times Carignani seemed intent on imposing his ego on the performance, leaving soloists scrambling to catch up a few times, and totally hanging the children’s chorus out to dry as though he were a sadistic school-master. So in other words maybe Barbini was right about how difficult this opera is to conduct. The big climaxes were all there, the solos sounded great. In a few a piacere moments he gave a bit more introspective space for the soloists, although this was inconsistent, as in other places the pace was unforgiving. Carignani kept me conscious of the process, keeping me at arm’s length from the story and often unable to really surrender myself to the story: although maybe that’s just me.

I was thinking of Paris, the site of this story and of course the site of the big story in the news this week. Recalling that Victor Hugo said

The greatest products of architecture are less the works of individuals than of society, rather the offspring of a nation’s effort, than the inspired flash of a man of genius.

So much of Toronto, so much of Canada is new. Our lovely new Four Seasons Centre is our temple to the arts, where the COC presents its operas to us, one of our greatest treasures. I’m so happy to be there, happy we have this wonderful place to gather and celebrate all that is beautiful.

We are so lucky.

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2 Responses to Old-fashioned Boheme

  1. Pingback: Two schools | barczablog

  2. Pingback: TSO + Davis = Mahler magic | barczablog

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