Vancouver Opera's La Boheme breathes believable life into Giacomo Puccini's characters
A Vancouver Opera production. At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Saturday, October 20. Continues October 23, 25, 27, and 28
It’s all about the eye contact in Vancouver Opera’s engaging new production of La Bohème. Rodolfo and Mimi’s gazes are glued rapturously the entire way through their extended Act 1 introduction. And even when Marcello is trying to ignore his unfaithful Musetta, you can see him stealing burning glances with her.
The performers, and director Nancy Hermiston (of UBC Voice and Opera), have found the life that Giacomo Puccini breathed into the characters. It’s often noted those characters are so vivid because they were based as much on the opera giant’s own bohemian circle of friends as on the stories of Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de Bohème. In this swiftly paced production, the chemistry between the poet Rodolfo, the painter Marcello, the musician Schaunard, and the philosopher Colline makes you believe these guys are man-cave buddies. And you can instantly read the fiery history between the flirtatious Musetta and Marcello when they first share the stage together.
Full of life amid sets that push intriguingly beyond the usual picture-postcard setting of Paris, the young leads wear their roles like comfortable clothing.
The singing is mostly strong across the board. Marianne Fiset’s Mimi outshines young American tenor Jason Slayden’s Rodolfo in the first two acts, with her lustrous soprano and aching softer moments. Her third-act goodbye is a highlight, luminous but restrained; her consumption doesn't "consume" the performance.
Slayden’s voice at first sounds narrow and he struggles to be heard above Leslie Dala’s orchestra for the first two acts, yet he has a gently heartfelt, note-perfect tenor. In the second half he redeems himself, starting with a beautifully calibrated trio with Fiset and Etienne Dupuis's Marcello, and then an emotionally wrought “Ah, Mimi” duet with Dupuis in the fourth. When he throws himself on his beloved’s deathbed in the finale, you really buy his grief; it’s not melodramatic.
Dupuis’s endlessly appealing Marcello is a star turn, the part robustly sung and blazing with that Puccini life energy. The Montreal performer can handle the slapstick of quickly hiding food and wine from an angry landlord as well as he can project a quiet empathy for a heartbroken Mimi.
Mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó’s Musetta is vividly sung and charismatic too, but amid the subtler acting of this production she verges on being too broad (or too much of a broad). Still, the crowd ate it up, especially when she feistily bumped her lady hump against Marcello’s head in the café scene.
Amid the smaller roles, Stephen Hegedus, as Colline, makes his goodbye ode to his winter coat (which he’s about to pawn for money) a truly standout solo.
Just as the performers deliver an impressive amount of depth, so, too, does the set from Opera Theatre of St. Louis. The tableau is multidimensional—an artful pastiche of historic black-and-white photos of Paris, impressionist paintings of the city, perspective-forcing angled gates, and crumbling brick walls. Video is used ever so subtly to send snow gently falling over the emotional third act. Marcello and Rodolfo’s garret manages to look richly realistic yet expressionistic, with its ruin of a brick wall; fully detached, sharply slanted multipaned window; and view to the cloudy sky and skyline of Paris. The overall effect is lushly historic yet smartly now.
The same could be said of this emotional, standing-ovation-earning rendition of one of the world’s most popular operas. It stays true to the classic, but the characters still feel contemporary, especially these guys in their long hair, scarves, and jackets. Except for the lingering threat of tuberculosis, of course, they feel not that different from, say, a bunch of Main Street bohemians hanging out, drinking wine, and counting their change in a losing attempt to gather enough for Vancouver's crippling rents.