Vancouver Opera's La Boheme finds intimacy and solid singing amid the flea markets of old Paris

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      A Vancouver Opera production. At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Thursday, February 14. Continues until February 24

      By now Vancouver Opera buffs know that the direction-design team of Renaud Doucet and André Barbe will give them a lot to look at. The pleasant surprise is that the pair’s postmodern Paris-set La Bohème also provides a lot of stunning singing to listen to.

      In a bold move, the duo open the show in the present day, amid one of the City of Light’s famous bustling flea markets, complete with antique shops, tourist hordes, an accordion player and chanteuse, and angling streetfronts and rooftops right out of Saint-Ouen. In a sly play on the nostalgia we all have for Paris, Barbe has slipped a postmark up into the sky above the sepia scene—turning the set into a kind of three-dimensional vintage postcard.

      A melancholy visitor, who’s wearing a pink head wrap that hints she’s going through chemo treatment, turns on an old gramophone at one of the stalls. As it plays the opening bars of Giacomo Puccini’s best-loved opera, the world around her turns to a 1920s scene, when Paris was ground zero for the artists of the Lost Generation. A flea-market potbelly stove suddenly becomes the place where the writer Rodolfo and his artist friends warm themselves in their garret; the woman with cancer even steps into the role of dying Mimi.

      It’s a risk opening with “Paris, Paris, Paris” rather than Puccini’s lush strains. But for an opera this familiar, the audience is more welcoming. What works most cleverly here is the way Doucet and Barbe circle back to contemporary times, from the beginning of Act 3, when the curtain rises on a homeless person sleeping in a doorway and a slightly strung-out party girl in a silver minidress wandering the late-night streets, to Ross Braes’s accordion solo between the third and fourth acts.

      What’s integral is that Doucet and Barbe, who so wowed crowds with their epic design for Turandot last season, make the set intimate here—visually rich, but with enough cozy, narrow streets to contain a story about a few starving artists who look out for one another. One of the simple pleasures is watching Rodolfo and Mimi disappear down an alleyway together, arm in arm, their voices echoing like they might off the old apartments of Montmartre.

      The artful setting takes on a whole new dimension when the real singing starts. From the first few bars of Ji-Min Park’s initial aria, “Che gelida manima”, it’s clear we’re in the presence of an exciting Rodolfo. The Korean-born tenor has played the role of Rodolfo more than 100 times, and he brings to it an energy, confidence, and unleashed passion that fall just to the right side of unhinged. He’s fun to watch. Mimi, perhaps by design, is more restrained (“I’m calm and content,” as she says); Quebec’s France Bellemare gives her a demure warmth, in both character and voice. But the real knock-you-off-your-seat singing comes from Sharleen Joynt’s glamorous Musetta, fearlessly vamps it up and easily scales the heights of her famous aria. Her flapper-era costumes are to die for.

      Sharleen Joynt's Musetta (with J. Patrick Raftery)
      Tim Matheson

      The other star of this production is conductor Judith Yan, and the Vancouver Opera Orchestra. She draws out the lyrical beauty of Puccini’s music, easing gradually into, say, Mimi and Rodolfo’s goodbye duet in Act 3, and never rushing its shifting emotions.

      In the end, Doucet’s approach is not to romanticize the love story between Mimi and Rodolfo, but rather to emphasize a community of underdogs trying to get through hard times. For that reason, the effect of this La Bohème might feel different than what you’re used to, especially in the final scene, which has been moved from the traditional bed to a vintage sofa. Playing again between the contemporary and the century-old setting, they achieve something quite magical and transporting. Rather than witnessing the kind of melodramatic tragic love that has you pulling out the Kleenex, we see friends huddled together in the dark, ushering a loved one out of this mortal coil—a scene that could be from 1820, 1920, or 2020 and still affect you.

      In the opening of La Boheme, France Bellemare plays a woman with cancer who finds an old gramophone in the Paris flea market.
      Tim Matheson