Review: La Bohème (Canadian Opera Company)

Canadian Opera Company’s revival of its 2013 production of La Bohème is aural perfection

The Canadian Opera Company’s current elegantly simple production of Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème is aural perfection. Regardless of what certain pompous composers and music historians have had to say about Puccini’s composition style, there is a reason why he has been an audience favourite for almost one hundred and fifty years. In my view Puccini is what opera is all about. Towering, raw emotion in response to life and death situations and breathtaking musical beauty.

In the current production of this quintessential work, the sets and costumes take a back seat as compared to other COC productions, bringing the beloved arias and duets to the fore. The understated set is appropriate to the starving artist storyline, and yet also provides the opportunity to create chaotically striking primary setting. We are in the studio of four artists: Rodolfo (a poet played by tenor Atalla Ayan), Marcello (a painter played by Baritone Lucas Meachem ), Schaunard (a musician played by Bass-Baritone Phillip Addis) and Colline (a philosopher played by Bass-Baritone Brandon Cedel). The studio is strewn with Marcello’s work in the Belle Epoque style of late 19th century France. This riot of vibrant colour is the sparse studio’s only décor. The drama unfolds in the Latin quarter of late nineteenth century Paris, the setting of the opera’s world premiere performance in 1896.

The four bohemians are struggling to pay rent and eat. They are required to use their wits to the put off the landlord so they can enjoy a meal at Café Momus. Rodolfo stays behind to finish up an article when a beautiful but frail seamstress from down the hall, Mimí, comes in to get a light for her candle which has gone out. When Mimí sits down for a rest, the two get acquainted and fall madly in love. They meet up with the others at Café Momus, where Marcello reunites with his ex, the coquettish singer Musetta. For a time, the couples live in ecstatic bliss, but their marginal existence gets in the way they are eventually torn apart by jealousy and poverty. In the end, a terminally ill Mimí chooses to follow her heart and leave the patronage of a wealthy lover so she can die in the studio with her true love, Rudolfo.

This production is a revival of the 2013 production by John Caird, this time directed by Katherine M. Carter and conducted by Paolo Carignani. A highlight of this remount is that it introduces COC audiences to American soprano Angel Blue, whose Mimí is magnificent. She is fittingly partnered with Brazilian tenor Atalla Ayan who is equally glorious in the role of Rudolfo and also new to the COC stage. Every aria and duet in this masterpiece tugs at the heartstrings, producing a delicious dull ache in the solar plexus.

Ayan’s performance of Che gelida manina, wherein he tells Mimí about his life as a poet, was breathtaking and revealed his voice to be confidently lush and rich with warm, sweet tone like ripe summer berries.

Blue’s response in the famous full-lyric soprano gem Si, mi chiamano Mimí was perfection. Blue’s incredibly resonant voice has a weighty, textured throb that was evident on even the softest pianissimo pitches. When paired with the unearthly beauty and sweetness of her tone, her realization of Mimi’s sweet nature and quiet optimism was unparalleled in its emotional resonance.

When Ayan and Blue’s voices come together in the landmark duet Oh soave fanciulla it is a climactic explosion of passion that was spectacular to behold on stage.

As is fitting, soprano Andriana Chuchman owns the stage in the Act II café scene where Musetta performs her iconic operatic waltz Quando m’en vo. Her bright, crystalline coloratura has a hummingbird fast, focused vibrato that is tailor made for the decadent frills and trills of this charming and timeless favourite.

There is a beautiful marriage of ensemble between orchestra and singers throughout this production and every note of the opening night performance as flawless. Our hearts broke right along with Ayan’s during his final anguished cries of “Mimí” and there were many moist eyes in the audience.

In additional to being a timeless hit for opera buffs, it is the perfect intro for opera new comers. The melodies are lavishly beautiful and engaging and you may find yourself singing certain passages in the shower a week later. If COC is considering producing a recording of anything this season, it should be this. The cast is outstanding and the music is like operatic comfort food. The set and the period costumes draw us right into the romance and tragedy of the bohemian life. La Bohème is an absolutely enchanting evening.

Details:

  • La Bohème is playing until May 22, 2019 at Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts (145 Queen Street West)
  • Show times are 7:30 PM on April 26, 28, May 2, 7, 11, 22 with additional matinees at 2:00 PM on April 28, May 5 & 11 and 4:30 PM on May 4.
  • Ticket prices range from $45 – $365. Patrons under 30 can purchase tickets for $22 or $35 here.
  • Tickets are available online, or through the box office at 416-363-8231 (long distance 1-800-250-4653).
  • Tickets can also be purchased on the TodayTix app and website for theatre tickets.

Photo of Atalla Ayan and Angel Blue by Michael Cooper