There is a moment in Against the Grain Theatre’s fresh, focused revival of La Bohème when the power of theatre shatters reality’s grip and the present is suddenly made boundless. Transplanting Puccini’s bittersweet world of youthful love and loss from the Latin Quarter of mid-19th century Paris to a tumbledown social club in downtown 2017 Toronto, director Joel Ivany raises the houselights and in the process flings creative constraints out the door. Suddenly the bohemians are among us or, to map the staging more accurately, we are drinking at the same shabby dive bar with them. In that instant, during the eye-blink leap from implied cold water flat to real-life haunt, any and all notions of opera as a remote, esoteric art form are utterly shattered. It is a stunning piece of dramaturgy, one among an entire evening’s worth.
An undeniable sensation when first staged in 2011, AtG’s La Bohème signalled the then fledgling young theatrical co-op’s arrival on the prevailing indie opera scene. A good many subsequent productions varying in scale and artistic intention — a reminted trilogy of Mozartian domestic comedies to starkly minimalist semi-staged art song recitals — have cemented the company’s reputation as an innovative, often revolutionary force for creative change. With an adapted English-language libretto penned by founder/artistic director Ivany and superbly crafted accompanying piano arrangement by co-founder/music director Topher Mokrzewski, the duo’s visionary La Bohème has come to assume something of the dimensions of a signature piece. All distinctive Against the Grain Theatre trademarks are here. The selection of venue to reflect and channel story. A breezy irreverence for performance tradition paralleled by uncompromising respect for classical source material. A brave, high energy cast of singularly gifted singer actors. Scrupulous economical production values.
A decade plus after its inception, the La Bohème currently on view at its birthplace, the legendary Tranzac Club, shows no sign of aging.
Inexpressibly heartrending, La Bohème, as originally written by veteran librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, who would also author Puccini’s Tosca and Madama Butterfly, is essentially narrative divorced from structure. Principal players, starving screenwriter Rodolfo and illustrator Marcello in Ivany’s reimaginings, are partnered by a vividly contrasted pair of young women, florist Mimi and manhunter Musetta. Joined by friends and flatmates, grad student Colline and Schaunard, street musician, all are recorded at sharp points of impact in their intersecting lives. The effect is more tableau than narrative, scenes loosely connected, for the most part, by a series of tremulous elliptical links that leap forward far beyond the habitual passage of time.
Storyline for Puccini turned on a self-originated principle he described as l’evidenza della situazione. Proceedings on stage were to be promptly understood in overt emotional terms. Insight was not necessarily reliant on text alone. Subplots were largely eliminated, the seething Marcello/Musetta love/hate saga in La Bohème notwithstanding. Compressed and spotlit, the action rocketed forward.
Ivany tracks all the primary twists and turns of Puccini’s 1896 masterwork, further distilling events, swirling characters through the audience, his set more suggestive than factual, theatre of the mind fully engaged. Scraps of the past — drawings of Musetta, pages of failed screenplay, bills past due — litter the stage, experience discarded. Memory, like a crumpled backdrop of collapsed dreams, is on display everywhere. Artist Jesse Durham sketches players and onlookers alike in real time from the sidelines. But todays, once lived, cannot be redrawn. This La Bohème captures the opera’s profound sadness and regret in bold, graphic strokes.
Puccini, master of emotion, strikes straight to the heart. Verismo here is no abstraction. It is the piccole cose (“the little things”), as the composer chose to call them, that impel his bohemians. Mimi’s favourite pink scarf, Colline’s cherished overcoat, candles in the dark — the minutiae of life becomes deeply resonant metaphor. Rodolfo and friends, so appealing, so very recognizable, are all but swept away, not by grand, noble passions but rather by their humanity. Love begins with the touch of a hand. Death comes with a soft smile.
There is a palpable quality of tenderness infused in Against the Grain’s production. Even the most uproarious scene feels somehow poignant. The scale, the intimacy, this is a La Bohème of inexpressibly touching proportions.
To call the musical component of the evening triumphant is an understatement. Soloing on a less than ideal house piano, maestro Mokrzewski mesmerizes, tone painting from Puccini’s brilliant orchestral palette, summoning a vibrancy of colour of virtuosic scope. La Bohème’s celebrated tinta positively glows, the haunting preamble to all the grief and tears of Act III magically evoked.
Arguably the tightest, most controlled of all Puccini’s scores, La Bohème casts an irresistible spell, a masterpiece of lyricism, acutely affecting, powerfully elaborated. Themes and motifs ebb and flow, frequently originating as intensely melodic arias, a mainstay in the Puccinian repertoire, assuming highly charged undertones when reintroduced. Mokrzewski charts the ever-shifting musical landscape with his characteristic blend of tireless sensitivity and verve. The delicacy of his partnering as Mimi lies dying is moving beyond words.
Singing the title role, soprano Kimy Mc Laren enchants, her timbre silvery and uplifted, her delivery gleaming and unadorned. Affectionate and caring, a centre of pure goodness, the character of Mimi can all too easily slip into the realm of saintly martyrdom. Open, uncomplicated, clear-voiced, Mc Laren’s strength of attack, her soaring dynamism speaks to her character’s will to survive. Her Mimi may be at death’s door but her nobility of spirit is indomitable.
Appearing as Rodolfo, tenor Owen McCausland turns in a solid, well-grounded performance as the ultimate budding romantic, mystified and frightened by the depth of his feelings, a sensitive young Everyman caught in a spiral of helplessness. Trading Italianate tone for a forthrightness and vigour of vocal manner, the seasoned COC Ensemble Company graduate brings notable commitment and authenticity to his many engaging scenes.
Baritone Andrew Love is a consummate Marcello, big-voiced and hugely captivating. There is more than a faint note of angry young man in this performance, a lashing out at life that gives his characterization a smouldering intensity. But there is a kindness and benevolence abundantly apparent here as well. The “good Marcello” Mimi reaches out to in time of desperation comes as no surprise. Love is a singer actor of impressive dexterity.
Adanya Dunn as Musetta, tears a broad swath through AtG’s La Bohème, strutting and vamping with reckless abandon, her sultry soprano red hot and alluring, a dangerous woman, wilful and self-centred. And an absolute delight. Dunn clearly loves this character as much as the audience. Her all-conquering stage turn in Ivany’s tumultuous Act II bar scene is nothing short of a master class in histrionics. It is her genuinely heartfelt prayer for Mimi in Act IV, however, that reveals the true depth of Dunn’s dramatic presence. “Oh, God! How’s this happening?”, she gasps. “She still had so much to give!” An exquisite moment of high drama delivered with potent, focused parlando.
Bass Kenneth Kellogg is a fine, robust Colline. Baritone Micah Schroeder is an invigorating, upbeat Schaunard. Inhabiting double roles as Benoit, the bohemian’s slum landlord, and as Alcindoro, Musetta’s wealthy Bay Street lover, Gregory Finney is beyond riotous. The irrepressible Toronto baritone’s command of buffa is a joy to behold.
Against the Grain Theatre has had more than its share of hits over the years. But La Bohème is iconic. This supremely expressive production fills the heart.