April 21, 25 & 27, 2012
I’ll be honest, when I learned that the Calgary Opera was going to end its season with Puccini’s La Bohème I was nervous. The beloved and enduring masterpiece is the only classic opera that I haven’t seen live in full production and I was fearful that my eager anticipation would lead to over-expectation and resulting disappointment. I shouldn’t have fretted. Conductor, Gordon Gerrard and Stage Director, Robert Herriot delivered a near pitch perfect production that not only allowed for the required suspension of disbelief, but invited the audience on a transformation to a place of moving heart-tugging reality.
The story itself is very simple and concerns a group of French bohemians in the 1800s as they try to make their way in life on little money and only their personal relationships to keep them warm. The poet Rodolfo (Antoine Belanger) meets (Marianne Fiset) and they fall in and out of love until they are finally reunited when she is on her deathbed from consumption. The opera ends with Mimi’s death, leaving Rodolfo inconsolable. Interwoven with this main narrative are short stories of their friends, most notably Marcello (Phillip Addis) and Musetta (Laura Albino) as the tempestuous and humorous on again off again couple who eventually works to get Rodolfo and Mimi back together.
Breakups, consumption and death. On the surface La Bohème comes across as just another heavily tragic opera. And while the climactic scene is a no doubt a tear-jerker, I was most dramatically struck with how clever and funny and joyfully light ninety-five percent of the opera is. The credit for this goes jointly to the Herriot and Gerrard team who allowed the comedy to shine brightly and the energetically talented cast who portrayed their characters as individuals with their own quirks and personalities.
Right from the opening scene where Rodolfo, Marcello and their friends gather in Rodolfo’s ramshackle apartment to joke and tease each other as male friends will do, the audience gets the feeling that they are watching characters they can believe in and relate to. This is no small feat. One of my biggest complaints with opera productions is that too often the directors and performers get caught up in the singing and forget that the acting is just as important if the production is going to resonate past a music listening exercise.
The same acting attention is paid in the flirtatious and game-playing scene where Rodolfo and Mimi first meet. Despite the fact that it takes them only 10 minutes to fall in love, we buy into the romance because their interaction feels familiar and plausible. In fact, this type of “realness” feeling sustains itself throughout the entire production making the tragedy of the story all the more heartbreaking because the performers let us is and we respond with a genuine sense of closeness to them.
Which is not to say that the singing isn’t excellent. In certain cases it’s beyond excellent. Fiset as Mimi is utterly captivating. Always veering towards the fragile nature of her character, her singing has a warm sweetness that is only made sweeter by the power of her voice. There is something I call a “close your eye moment “– when the voice is so moving that you have to shut your eyes for a second to let your brain truly taste it, and I had several listening to Fiset.
The other standout for me was Addis’ Marcello whose resplendent baritone voice was like rich cream being stirred deliciously into a hot cup of coffee. With the killer combination of a voice that made my ears perk up with delight and an acting prowess that should be the envy of many performers, Addis owned the stage in all his scenes and I’m sure made the hearts of many a female in the audience go aflutter.
Belanger as Rodolfo had some beautiful moments as well and his duets with Fiset flowed richly. However at times his performance was lost under the swell of the orchestra, which was a shame as it was a voice I would have liked to have heard more clearly.
This small criticism aside, I really have nothing but praise for the entire effort of this production. With the wonderful sets on loan from the Edmonton Opera, the elevated directorial approach and a uniformly strong cast with some marvelous standouts, I’m delighted that this is the La Bohème I waited for.
For the guys – The male camaraderie will feel authentic to you and while the production will ask you to cry at the end, it will keep you laughing right up until you do. SEE IT
For the girls – The women are not the typical whore/Madonna roles you are used to seeing in an opera. They are both flawed and lovely and it’s a story that feels very present despite the historical setting. SEE IT
For the occasional theatre goer – Regardless if opera is not your thing, the acting and storyline might just make this a performance you can delight in. SEE IT
For the theatre junkie – Think of the best opera you’ve seen. Now combine it with the acting you demand in the theatre. This is it. SEE IT
You’ve mentioned that you don’t like musicals. (I love ’em!) As a rule, do you enjoy opera? I’ve exposed myself to the opera on a few occasions but it’s never really done much for me. The language is an issue (though I guess that’s not so much of a problem today with new technology) but the thing that really leaves me cold is the recitative. Singing everything (“open the door”, “pass my a kleenex”) seems forced and the melodies supporting this filler dialogue are usually unappealing. I guess it’s sort of the reverse that drivers haters of musicals crazy – songs apparently popping out of nowhere in the middle of a conversation.
Very good point re the incessant drone of music in opera vs. the often jarring punctuation of song in musicals. I do like opera. I find the grandness of it, the abundant theatricality, the delicate interplay between live orchestra and performer and the timelessness of the stories terribly appealing. BUT if, as you say, the recitative element of the libretto is not well staged and acted, I too am bored. Opera that comprises performers standing in one spot singing to the audience rather than acting their parts to the fullest is totally unacceptable in this day and age, IMO.
And to be fair, I don’t hate ALL musicals. I just can’t stomach the ones that are either A. All production and no substance….yes I’m talking to you Mr. Webber, or B. Hackneyed excuses to put a bunch of singers on stage without a compelling narrative.
In the end, it’s all about story for me. Opera plots are very simple. They are about the core of human emotion shown to us without the distraction of cute dance numbers. No you don’t necessarily leave the theatre humming all the tunes, but what you do remember I think will last longer than the memory of the latest fluff starring Matthew Broderick.