Stage Door Review

La Bohème

Friday, April 19, 2019

✭✭✭✭✩

by Giacomo Puccini, directed by John Caird

Canadian Opera Company, Four Seasons Centre, Toronto

April 17, 26, 28, May 2, 4, 5, 7, 11 & 22, 2019

Rodolfo: “In cener la carta si sfaldi e l'estro rivoli ai suoi cieli”

Opera critics tend to groan when they see that Puccini’s La Bohème is on the playbill. In the past ten years it has been the third most performed opera in the world after Verdi’s La Traviata and Mozart’s The Magic Flute. At the Canadian Opera Company La Bohème has featured in 16 of the company’s 67 seasons, now tying with Puccini’s Madama Butterfly as the company’s most performed opera.

Yet, in 2013 the COC unveiled a new production of La Bohème, a co-production with Houston Grand Opera and San Francisco Opera, that found more substance in the opera than any previous production I’ve seen. It is directed by John Caird, most famous as the co-director of the original production of Les Misérables, who has taken a fresh look at this tale of the lives and loves of starving artists in late 19th-century Paris. Given the sumptuous playing of the COC Orchestra and the engaging performances of most of the principals, this production revitalizes this warhorse and makes it an exciting, energizing experience.

My impressions of Caird’s production from 2013 (his direction now re-created by Katherine M. Carter) still seem valid. I noted: “Most productions of Puccini’s 1896 work about starving artists in love have emphasized the theme of love but neglected the theme of art. Caird redresses this tendency through a concept production that keeps the theme of art constantly before our eyes. Designer David Farley has constructed the sets for all four acts out of an assemblage of paintings on canvas. For the garret where the four male artists live, all we see are the backs of the canvasses with the wooden stretchers and crossbars looking like the crazy moulding and wainscoting of what seems like a jerrybuilt space for working and sleeping. The sets for the scenes at the Café Momus and at the city gates are composed of the painted sides of the canvasses and portray the locations as if refracted by a collection of clouded mirrors. Caird has Marcello the painter painting a canvas on an easel of the Café Momus in Act 2, but in Act 3 Marcello is discovered painting a large picture of a tavern which is, in fact, part of the tavern itself with rectangular lights from behind the canvas suggesting windows. The effect deliberately plays with the distinction between illusion and reality. Even the border and legs surrounding the set look like canvas drop cloths. 

“The impact of this visual emphasis on art and artifice is to highlight all the references to these subjects throughout the libretto. In Act 1 when Rodolfo burns his play to keep warm, he puns on the burning of his scenes of burning passion: ‘In quell'azzurro - guizzo languente Sfuma un'ardente - scena d’amor’ (‘In that dying blue flame an ardent love-scene dies’). In Act 2, Schaunard refers to Musetta’s attempt to make Marcello jealous as ‘la commedia’. In Act 4, Colline’s farewell to his empty coat mimics Rodolfo’s farewell to the dying Mimì. Only in this production has Rodolfo’s decision to burn his play sounded so much like a foreshadowing of the action: ‘No, in cener la carta si sfaldi e l'estro rivoli ai suoi cieli’ (‘No the paper will unfold in ashes and its muse return to heaven’). 

“Caird’s direction and Farley’s design reveal the four male protagonists as men who spend their lives creating illusion and, indeed, use illusion to stave off reality. Only when reality impinges on their work, like the chill air in Act 1, are they forced to stop. Mimì’s entrance into the artists’ midst represents a more ineluctable reality than the cold – that is, death. This is a reality that shakes all the characters to the core.

“While the production concept is enlightening, its execution could have more panache. Farley’s design succeeds in de-glamourizing the notion of an artist’s garret, but why are such different locations as those in Acts 2 and 3 cast in the same dull, grey-on-grey colour scheme and why do they have to look so drab? Nevertheless, Farley’s set has one important advantage over the Wolfram Skalicki’s set for the COC’s previous production that premiered in 1989. Farley’s set allows the change of scene from Act 1 to 2 and from Act 3 to 4 to occur almost instantaneously, thus avoiding the long waits between acts in a semi-lit auditorium that Skalicki’s set entailed along with the resulting break in the flow of the music and storytelling”.

Caird’s direction does not foreground the Rodolfo-Mimì story at the expense of the Marcello-Musetta story, as is usually the case, but rather keeps the two in balance with the bitterness and humour of the latter counteracting the sentimentality of the former. In fact, in this revival of the Caird production, Lucas Meachem is so dominant as the painter Marcello that the opera feels almost as if we are seeing the action from his point of view. That the sets are composed of paintings only reinforces this notion.

You could hardly wish for a better pair of lovers than the Rodolfo of Brazilian tenor Atalla Ayan and the Mimì of American soprano Angel Blue. Ayan plays Rodolfo as anguished and unhappy from the start so that his encounter with Blue’s forthright and slyly witty Mimì paradoxically seems to give him new life even though her consumption dooms her to an early death.

Ayan has just the kind of full, ringing, passionate tenor one looks for in a Rodolfo. Blue has an exquisitely rich high soprano that makes her a much more vivacious Mimì than usual. Ayan’s account of “Che gelida manina” and Blue’s of “Mi chiamano Mimì” won them cheers and massive applause right from the start.

American baritone Lucas Meachem appeared about ten years older than his fellow artists but through his commanding presence and detailed acting dominated every scene he was in. He also consistently sang at a louder volume than any of the other cast members and should have attempted to rein in his naturally clear, resonant voice to match the others.

In contrast Canadian soprano Andriana Chuchman as Musetta wields a lovely but somewhat smaller voice than those of her cast-mates. As a result her famous waltz “Quando me'n vo’” is not the show-stopping aria it usually is. Chuchman is much better in the quieter portions of Act 4 when Musetta shows her concern for the dying Mimì.

Canadian Phillip Addis, who sang the musician Schaunard in the COC’s Bohème in 2013, returns using his agile and creamy baritone to create a lively portrait of the same character, the only one of the four artist friends who makes any money. Addis is also a very fine actor and the change in his expressions that he displays silently when Schaunard becomes the first to realize that Mimì is dead conveys as much emotion as Rodolfo’s final outcry. 

Against this, American bass-baritone Brandon Cedel does little to give any life the philosopher Colline and does nothing to bring out the irony in Colline’s famous farewell to his coat (“Vecchia zimarra”) in Act 4. Italian bass is Donato Di Stefano curiously much more amusing as Benoit, the artists’ landlord, than he is as Alcindoro, Musetta’s sugar daddy.

Under Italian conductor Paolo Carignani, who last conducted Carmen here in 2012, the COC Orchestra creates a sound of fantastic opulence and beauty overlaid with a bright sheen I’ve never heard from it before. Carignani suavely shifts from tempo to tempo in the most sensuous way. His one failing is his tendency to slow the tempo for the opera’s most famous numbers such as Musetta’s waltz, taken rather too slowly, or the final quartet of Act 3.

In general, however, one felt as if one were hearing this all-too-familiar work anew. The opera does not feel like the simplistic tear-jerker as it is often played but an opera filled with subtle insight into the complexities of human emotions and the general unfairness of life. The opulence of the score, especially as performed as it is here, seems to reflect the imagination of its characters who while stuck in the midst of tawdriness can still perceive a more beautiful life. Even if you’ve seen La Bohème many times before, you won’t want to miss hearing Atalla Ayan and Angel Blue or the gorgeous sound of the COC Orchestra 

Christopher Hoile

Note: This is version of a the review that will appear later this year in Opera News.

Photos: (from top) Atalla Ayan as Rodolfo and Angel Blue as Mimì; Lucas Meachem (with painting), Andriana Chuchman (in pink), Brandon Cedel (with parcels), Phillip Addis (in top hat), Atalla Ayan and  Angel Blue; Phillip Addis, Brandon Cedel, Lucas Meachem (standing), Atalla Ayan, Angel Blue and Andriana Chuchman. © 2019 Michael Cooper.

For tickets, visit www.coc.ca.