Visionary duo André Barbe and Renaud Doucet take Vancouver Opera's La Bohème to 1920s Paris

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      Stage director Renaud Doucet and designer André Barbe have brought their outsized vision to more than 30 operas.

      The celebrated duo turned a Turandot at Vienna’s Volksoper into a phantasmagoric insect world, and then re-envisioned it again as the Chinese-inspired spectacle at Vancouver Opera in 2017.

      They’ve staged a retro-futuristic La Cenerentola for Staatsoper Hamburg, with a look straight out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. At Opéra National du Rhin, their 1950s-America version of Cendrillon featured gigantic Populux kitchen appliances. At the Scottish Opera, their Manon was a vision of bewigged, rococo splendour. And then there was Wexford Festival Opera’s monochromatic rendition of Pénélope, with masked handmaids and an all-white kitchen tilted madly askew at centre stage.

      Now the Venice-based Canadian duo is bringing the same creative genius to Giacomo Puccini’s classic La Bohème. With sets that originated in their Scottish Opera production, it opens on a present-day tourist who’s sick with cancer, as she wanders through a flea market in Paris. Finding a stall filled with 1920s objets d’art, she’s transported back to that city’s Jazz Age, when it was a buzzing artists’ hub. It’s there that the doomed love story of the writer Rodolfo and the dying Mimi unfolds, amid scenery that’s been likened to a three-dimensional vintage postcard from the City of Light.

      “I spent a lot of time with André going to the flea market in Saint-Antoine in Paris,” says Doucet, sitting with the Straight at VO’s East Side headquarters, where uncountable antique toys and trinkets—straight out of les marchés aux puces—cover tables around the rehearsal hall. “And when I go to Saint-Antoine antique shops and I see the 19th-century furniture, I always wonder who lived with it. When you touch it, you have a connection with the past.”

      What is important to understand about Doucet and Barbe is that their dazzling renditions of operas are not about gimmicks. In fact, Doucet feels a strong responsibility to honour what was written by the great composers. Instead of reinventing the masterworks, he and Barbe seek something closer to rediscovering them. They accomplish that with meticulous excavation of the original work.

      “I would love to set a Bohème today, but I’ve seen a lot of Bohèmes set today that are failures because they do not respect the score,” he says with passion in colourfully accented English. “Whatever decision you make, you need to be able to support it from the first note to the last. You can have an idea, but if it’s not good for the rest of the opera, it’s not a good idea.

      Designer André Barbe and stage director Renaud Doucet (from left) feel a strong responsibility to honour what was written by the great composers.

      Julius Ahn

      “André and I are absolutely terrible about that!” adds the director. “We have ideas, but if one word is ‘no’, that word is enough for us to throw the idea in the garbage. We did not compose the opera, and we didn’t write the libretto. It’s our responsibility to be faithful to the piece. But that doesn’t mean, like with a painting, that you cannot put it in a different frame, you cannot put a different lighting on it.…But what we refuse to do is draw a mustache on La Joconde [Mona Lisa]. And this is why all our shows are so different.”

      Their artistic relationship works, he relates, because they don’t always see eye to eye, questioning and challenging each other. ”The thing is not to think alike but to complement each other,” Doucet explains. “We rebound off each other, like a tennis match, for a very long time until we say, ‘Ah, this is good.’ ” Sometimes the pair will spend two or three years planning an opera project. Doucet, who loves cuisine, says that gives them the luxury of cooking up ideas, then letting them simmer before returning to them anew.

      One of the world’s best-known operas, La Bohème carries preconceptions that the team wanted to avoid. As Doucet puts it: “Our job is to tell stories, and we have to believe it—without the stereotypical clichés. Otherwise, opera will die.”

      So he and Barbe studied the score to find its essence, digging into “why is there a crescendo, why is there a decrescendo, what is the emotion that creates that, why, why, why? Don’t change what’s written.”

      With La Bohème, as he sees it, the first big problem is that so many people consider it a romantic opera. “Somebody has to tell me how a woman in the final stage of illness is romantic,” he says of the consumptive Mimi. “The love story is like the background to the story. It’s about the humanity. It is the caring for each other that is important.”

      The Jazz Age seemed like an apt setting for the opera, because it, too, has sometimes been seen romantically, as the glory days of Paris, when artists from Pablo Picasso to Josephine Baker converged on the city. But, Doucet points out, there was hardship then, too; poverty abounded and the average life span was just 48, he points out.

      The approach has little to do with whether the portrayal is traditional or modern, he says.

      “It’s very important to get inspired to make sure it’s relevant to today’s audience. As I always say to the singers, ‘Don’t mistake tradition with bad habits,’” Doucet says. “Don’t take it for granted. As soon as you do, you don’t even experience 20 percent of what the opera is.”

      Vancouver Opera presents La Bohème at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on February 14, 16, 19, 21, and 24.

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