Stage Door Review

La Bohème

Monday, October 14, 2019

✭✭

by Giacomo Puccini, translated, adapted and directed by Joel Ivany

• Against the Grain Theatre, Tranzac Club, 292 Brunswick Avenue, Toronto

October 11-25, 2019;

• Old Fire Hall, Whitehorse, YT

November 4-5, 2019;

• ODD Gallery - Dënäkär Zho, Dawson City, YT

November 7, 2019

Mimi: “My room has no windows, but I still have a view”

To celebrate its tenth anniversary Against the Grain Theatre has gone back to its very first production – Puccini’s La Bohème staged in a pub. AtG is staging the opera in Toronto in the Tranzac Club where the production played ten years ago. But as a sign of how the fortunes and importance of this indie opera company have increased, AtG’s Bohème arrives in Toronto after having first toured to nine cities across the country. After the run in Toronto, AtG will take its production to the Yukon where it will become the first company to stage opera there in over 100 years. 

The audiences there as here in Toronto are sure to be wowed. Director Joel Ivany has masterfully translated Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa original libretto from Italian into colloquial English and moved the action and changed the references to the present. The Café Momus that the characters frequent becomes whatever pub where the show is playing. Instead of an orchestra, the indefatigable David Eliakis’ expressive playing of a piano* provides the accompaniment.

A story that is focussed on the lives of a small, closely knit circle of friends is eminently suited to a small venue. To see such finely detailed acting and especially to hear such glorious voices in such an intimate setting only makes the experience of the opera more powerful. 

Though the Tranzac Club has its own stage, designer Adriana Bogaard has curtained it off and built a square dais in front of it so that the audience surrounds the playing area on three sides. When the friends go to what would be the Café Momus in the original opera, here they simply head over the Tranzac’s actual bar. For the Toronto run a six-member chorus fills in some of the choral parts of the Café Momus scene, but episodes such as the children’s chorus and Parpignol the toy seller are omitted.

One of Ivany’s best decisions is to eliminate the toll gate at the Barrière d’Enfer as a location for Act 3. Most people don’t know that there was once a wall surrounding Paris (le Mur des Fermiers généraux) with 62 toll gates used to collect taxes on goods entering Paris. Since Ivany has moved the action to the present in Toronto, he has this scene played in the artists’ garret apartment of Act 1 and it works better there than in traditional productions where we wonder why there are officials and pedlars and a tollhouse.

By eliminating the two settings in the original that expand the world of the play to all of Paris, Ivany keeps the focus more tightly on the lives of the six friends. The audience is thus both physically and emotionally closer to the central characters than they ever are in an opera house. Though I’ve seen La Bohème innumerable times, this intimacy (and the wonderful performance of Jonelle Sills†) made the death of Mimi more devastating than in any production in recent memory.

Ivany has given the Bohemians more up-to-date occupations. Rodolfo (Marcel d’Entremont) is a would-be screenwriter, his flatmate Marcello (Clarence Frazer) is an illustrator, their friends Colline (Giles Tomkins) is a Ph.D. student and Schaunard (Andrew Adridge‡) is a street musician, Mimì (Jonelle Sills) is a florist and Musetta (Danika Lorèn§) is a visual artist who seems to make most of her money as an escort and is a favourite of the wealthy Alcindoro (Greg Finney) an investment banker. 

There are confusions in the setting. While Ivany cleverly works in references to Toronto place names, current pop culture, he has Rodolfo write his screenplay on a typewriter rather a laptop (paper, of course, is needed for “In cener la carta si sfaldi”) and Marcello do his sketches on paper rather than on an iPad. We are about to think that Ivany has moved the setting to 1996, a hundred years after the opera’s world premiere. But then Marcello pulls out a smartphone to take a photo, shooting us into the present.

The new setting also poses a problem with Mimì’s illness. Were the opera’s new setting in the US, we might understand why Mimì has not sought any medical attention. However, in Canada in the present with universal heath care and cures for tuberculosis, it’s difficult to understand what illness Mimì could be dying of and why she goes without treatment. In my mind I made up the excuse that she has been told she has terminal cancer and wants to live her remaining days in as normal a way as possible. Yet, no such explanation exists in Ivany’s text. Ivany wisely does not have Musetta sell her jewelry to buy some generic “medicine” as in the original, but merely something to help Mimì. 

These small slips aside, the update to the present, or near present, works brilliantly. The acting of the performers is detailed and natural and in the Café Momus scene, we the audience become the equivalent of stage extras filling the bar.

Musically, the principal revelation of the evening was Jonelle Sills as Mimì. She has a lovely smooth soprano and such a glowing stage presence that when Mimì dies it feels as if the guiding light of the world of the opera has gone out.

Marcel d’Entremont gives Rodolfo more charm than usual by emphasizes his self-effacing nature, seeming taken as unaware by his sudden love for Mimì as she is for him. His soft, expressive tenor is more in the British than the Italian vein but that only suits Ivany’s English-Canadian setting even better. D’Entremont’s high notes are strong and full without a hint of strain.

The rest of the performers are well cast. Baritone Greg Finney is equally amusing as the Bohemians’ easily drunken landlord Benoît and the self-important Alcindoro. Clarence Frazer uses his strong, steady baritone to make Marcello the friend with the greatest sense of humour. When Frazer’s Marcello turns serious in Act 4, we know events have taken the worst possible turn. 

Giles Tomkins’ supple bass-baritone is as dependable as ever and he brings a more complex mixture of emotions to Colline’s famous farewell to his coat than is usually the case. Ivany makes the sometimes bland Schaunard a more vivid character by making him the more demonstratively emotional of the three male friends. Whether in joy, fear or despair Andrew Adridge uses his acting and clear baritone to convey Schaunard’s every emotion. 

Soprano Danika Lorèn’s Musetta is an unashamed party girl and tosses off Musetta’s famous waltz “Quando m’en vo’” as if it were the easiest thing in the world. Lorèn’s Musetta laughs off aspersions as to her real vocation giving the impression she simply doesn’t care what people think. Ivany and his cast manage the contrasting duets of Rodolfo and Mimì versus Marcello and Musetta in Act 3 so beautifully it is one of the main highlights of the evening.

Although it is likely present to maintain the venue’s pub atmosphere, I would have been happier if the Tranzac Club did not turn its muzak back on during the intermissions. I’d rather remain more fully within the world of the opera. Nevertheless, such is the intensity with which the singers perform that immediately an interval is over, I was instant caught up again in the story.

Against the Grain Theatre’s La Bohème could provide no better advertisement for the potency and accessibility of opera. Ivany’s translation, the modern setting and the pub atmosphere make us more involved in the joy and sadness of this small group of friends than ever happens when they are in period costume and separated from us in grand settings behind a proscenium. By touring this production AtG will has done Canada a great service by demonstrating what is best in opera – the telling of great stories by means of the sheer, unaided power of the human voice. 

Christopher Hoile

*Hyejin Kwon will be music director in the Yukon.

†Gewendolyn Yearwood will sing Mimì in the Yukon.

‡Noah Grove will sing Schaunard in the Yukon.

§Madison Angus will sing Musetta in the Yukon.

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Greg Finney as Alcindoro, Andrew Adridge as Schaunard, Giles Tomkins as Colline and Danika Lorèn as Musetta at the Tranzac Club; Charles Frazer as Marcello, Giles Tomkins as Colline, Marcel d’Entremont as Rodolfo, Andrew Adridge as Schaunard and Greg Finney as Benoît; Giles Tomkins as Colline, Charles Frazer as Marcello,Marcel d’Entremont as Rodolfo, Jonelle Sills as Mimì and Andrew Adridge as Schaunard. © 2019 Against the Grain Theatre.

For tickets, visit againstthegraintheatre.com.