Two schools

My review of the Canadian Opera Company La Boheme that I saw last night alluded to two different approaches. I hope you’ll bear with me. I know many people who would roll their eyes. Why bother at all with Boheme, this warhorse?

Perhaps that’s the problem, like the people who have given up on voting, having decided they can’t trust the process or the promises of the candidates.

We can understand two extremes, with all sorts of combinations between the two poles.  Ideally a production would unify styles, rather than offering two or more approaches on display in the same production.  For better or worse, I meant these two extremes:
1: “old fashioned” was what I called it in the headline. It wasn’t a euphemism, it was literally true. Many in the audience gobble this up, and some prefer their opera this way. This is how things used to be done: singers standing and gesturing and mugging, while placing almost their entire focus on singing, a histrionic style rather than one that’s recognizably modern.
2: “naturalistic” might be an absurd word to use, when we’re still talking about operatic performance. But one can sing in a way that the feelings being expressed emerge as though the performer just thought of them (operatic method acting??). Singers who are looking out into the audience, staring at the conductor or parking themselves in one place to sing are less believable than those who engage with the diegetic reality of the story and with one another, reacting and seeming fully alive.

There are moments in Boheme that are more conducive to one style than the other. I think the two arias side by side in Act I don’t have to be done the same way. Where “che gelida manina” does have some business (he touches her hand after all), it’s really about a text that builds to a big high note, followed by a gradual diminuendo to the last notes on a question to Mimi. Just as we might say boys will be boys, so too tenors will be tenors.  I won’t go so far as to say “egomaniacal narcissists will be egomaniacal narcissists” even if I do watch way too much CNN and read the tweets of a certain politician.  If the tenor isn’t totally self-centred, it’s already a win. And so long as the high notes are there, all is forgiven.

Her answering aria is conversational, some of its most beautiful effects are actually in the orchestra –where I hear clearly Puccini telling us that her life is a passive fatal reaction to circumstance, that she has a dark cloud hanging over her–and not in the vocal line, unlike the tenor’s aria. The role of Mimi is different, because it’s really all about what she shows us in her reactions, which tells us how she will live her life.

Maybe I need to admit that this opera is full of moments that I have seen done both ways, both the older style or someone aiming to find something authentic.

When Musetta & Marcello end their exchange in Act III with insults (it’s a bit like a duet but functions as part of a quartet, given that Rodolfo & Mimi are also onstage) , this can seem very real. I was surprised at how natural this exchange seemed last night, as Musetta walked off with another man, while Marcello’s replies had less than the usual anger: because he seemed deflated & jealous. Just when you think you know how a scene should sound, someone surprises you.


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

The ending of the opera is a musical- drama event that can be very powerful. The way it’s written it should work like clockwork, yet frustrates me over and over. We watch a sequence of events, as

  • Mimi dies
  • Schaunard is the first to notice and tells Marcello
  • The music gives us a little bit of melody then silence.
  • Gradually each of the singers onstage notices & privately responds, until Colline (who has just returned with money) innocently says “how’s it going?” (literally “come va”).

There is silence. What the opera does in this silence can be quite magical, even if done in the old-fashioned way.

  1. Rodolfo speaks into the silence wondering at the others, and the reality begins to dawn on him (and the question for the performance is: how quickly? how much? how soon?).
  2. Marcello is the first to address the reality, saying “Coraggio” (courage) to Rodolfo
  3. And Rodolfo finally understands, going to the bed crying “Mimi!, Mimi! Mimi!

The old fashioned way to do this usually gives us a Rodolfo who is sobbing very early, and alas that’s what we got last night. What I understand in this composition is that Puccini meant for the orchestra’s loud chords to signify recognition, the blast meaning a gut-level knowledge.  The ending is much more powerful if Rodolfo somehow resists the impulse to be a ham, resists the impulse to steal this moment from the audience by over-acting.

I’ve seen it done another way that would seem more naturalistic, in the sense of letting the emotions emerge in tune with the music and building in a way that seems more like what Puccini had in mind. At ‘1’ we don’t need to have a shouting voice. Rodolfo should begin this relatively neutral, if not hopeful At the very least he is questioning, confused, rather than too loud too soon. If he’s too loud he upstages Marcello’s line. I recall Against the Grain doing it with this emotional logic, Ryan Harper as Rodolfo & Justin Welsh as Marcello, directed by Joel Ivany back in 2011. If Rodolfo isn’t too loud, then Marcello’s line has the simple dignity that opens the flood gates to what follows. Rodolfo should not really know too much too soon. I can handle histrionics, stand-and-deliver singing, two-dimensional characterization, sentimentality: so long as there is a clear emotional logic. Otherwise you’re wasting Puccini’s melodrama.

I’ll see it again. Perhaps the production will be more fluid when they’re done a few more performances.

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2 Responses to Two schools

  1. Edward Brain says:

    All I can say is that if I never see another Boheme it will be too soon. Everyone does La Boheme all the time. It’s over rated in my books (maybe because it done so often.)

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