La Bohème and Springtime: A Delightful Duo
Puccini and springtime are one of those beautiful duos that one knows are just meant to be together. There is something about those sweeping La Bohème melodies that whisk us away so fully away from all of this season’s commitments and the rollercoaster weather we have been experiencing. There is a freshness to the music and story like that of the fresh spring air. The plot is engaging and simple - if you’ve seen the musical Rent, they borrowed the same storyline, but swapped tuberculosis for HIV/AIDS. La Bohème has it all: passionate love, sorrowful heartbreak, children scampering and singing (Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus), festive street scenes, and tragedy.
The May 22nd show at the Four Seasons Centre marked the final performance of La Bohème and the conclusion of the Canadian Opera Company’s 2018-19 season. Puccini wastes no time with preambles of any sort (i.e. orchestral introductions in the form of overtures which often precede the curtain rising) and we are instead launched right into the thick of action.
The singers for this performance were considered the “alternate cast” to the star-studded first cast. They all clearly earned their place performing on this stage, however - the performances were polished and full of energy. Andrzej Filończyk, with a buttery tone, earned the audience’s pity for Marcello, a poor love-sick painter and on-and-off boyfriend to Musetta. Joshua Guerrero as Rodolfo, Marcello’s pal and Mimi’s flame, offered heart-rendering arias full of tenderness. Their duet in Act 4, as the two young men reminisce about their lovers, was a shining moment in the production - the blend of the two voices dovetailing with subtlety.
Musetta is perhaps the most vibrant and fun role in the opera and Danika Di Stefano took no prisoners in her interpretation of this sassy character. She stole the show in Act 1 as she flitted around the stage dressed in a bright pink dress, infusing bucketloads of personality to her lines, while showcasing great control of her voice.
Miriam Khalil played the penultimate role of Mimi, a sweet yet sickly neighbour with whom Rodolfo falls in love. Khalil was frequently all smiles on stage (maybe a bit too much for this particular role?). Her voice moves hearts in the delicate moments and this is where Khalil’s strengths seemed to lie during the performance. When she was required to have a deeper timbre, Khalil seemed to lack this depth in her voice.
This richness was more than made up for in the orchestra, which sounded perhaps the most polished and cohesive I have heard all year. Conductor Antonello Allemandi, who made his COC debut appearance conducting this final performance (substituting for Paolo Carignani), brought vibrant energy in leading the orchestra from the very first downbeat. Guided by Concertmaster Marie Berard, who played some beautifully expressive solos, the orchestra had the full package of precision, blend, fine solos (including harpist Sarah Davidson), and passion. At times the full force of the orchestra was too much for the cast on stage with numerous balance issues, yet this also is partly the density of Puccini’s writing.
This production of La Bohème was like a step back in time. David Farley (Set & Costume Designer) recalled Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker with top hats, newspaper boy caps, and 19th century elegant gowns. The sets were full of detail and helped enhance the atmosphere. The Christmas Eve set of Act 2 conjured up the feeling of a snowglobe with a magical ending of this act: glowing royal blue lighting (Michael James Clark) against golden snowflakes projected on the background screen.
Attending COC’s La Bohème, all in all, like finishing a good book, was a very satisfying experience. The audience’s attention was seized from the first few notes and one was completely immersed in a heartbreaking story. The performance was compelling and achieved a sense of remarkable flow, the resulting work of many artistic hands involved.