For people who are new to the art form, Puccini’s tear-jerker of 1896 is everything an opera is supposed to be. The music is lyrical, the story is pure emotion – and it’s even in Italian. They love it.
Veteran opera-goers seem to fall into two categories. There are who have seen Bohème quite often enough, and are in no hurry to see it again. And those who confess (with a touch of embarrassment) that, after all these years, the piece still works its magic on them.
However, I’m glad to say that the COC’s current production of Bohème, which I saw on Wednesday night, rose above the “cash cow” model, in most respects. On the whole, this production is traditional and straightforward, yet refreshingly sincere and committed.
For this, much credit must go to director John Caird. When busyness was called for – in the garret scenes, or at the Café Momus – the action was taut and tightly woven. At other times, Caird’s hand was lighter, resulting in an effectively minimal stage action. And in the pit, conductor Carlo Rizzi’s lively and emphatic approach made for a musically engaging evening.
It was in designer David Farley’s scenery that the desire to minimize expenses reared its pencil-pointy head. I first saw his sets – a collection of painted canvasses that allowed for quick scene-changes – at the Houston Grand Opera, last fall. Although clever, they made Houston’s Bohème look like a cheap touring production, and they did the same for the COC’s staging.
As for the casting, this Bohème is a mix-and-match show, with two or even three singers scheduled to sing principal roles on different nights. Wednesday’s performance marked a “changing of the guard,” with some singers switching roles, and a few new voices joining the show. (Why this game of musical chairs was necessary is a mystery. But the COC had its reasons, I suppose.) Fortunately, the results were generally gratifying, and occasionally impressive.
Michael Fabiano, as Rodolfo, was the star of the night. With his ringing tenor voice – strong in all registers and with just a touch of vibrato – he gave a performance that was secure and supple at the same time. This young American is making his COC debut in this production, and as far as I’m concerned, he can come back to Toronto any time!
As Mimì on this particular evening, Canadian soprano Joyce El-Khoury (who opened the production as Musetta) displayed fine musicianship in her phrasing and dynamics. But at times there was a diffuse quality to her vocal production – matched by a dramatic stiffness and uncertainty that restrained her presence on stage. Only in Act III did her intensity rise to match Rodolfo’s.
Baritone Philip Addis (who made his company debut as Schaunard on opening night) was a stalwart Marcello, vocally and dramatically on the money. And as Musetta, Simone Osborne used her bright, agile soprano voice to fine effect. However, her attempts to flesh-out her vain, attention-seeking character were sometimes stagey and over the top.
Did the COC get the mix right, with this configuration of singers? The litmus test of La Bohème always comes in the last 20 minutes of the opera, as poor Mimì lies dying. It’s at that point that audience-members learn just how deeply everything that has led up to this scene has made them care about these poor Parisians. It’s here that the opera goes straight to the heart or falls disappointingly short.
And on Wednesday night, it worked. Aided by some superb playing from the COC Orchestra, the scene was gripping, poignant and tragic. This audience got what it came for.
© Colin Eatock 2013