Giacomo Puccini may not have been the first composer to strike off in new directions from time to time but he was surely one of the most intrepid. As a brash young graduate of the Milan Conservatory, Puccini set aside his early symphonic plans to focus exclusively on musical theatre. Abandoning traditional nineteenth century romanticism in favour of the newly minted verismo style, his first genuine international blockbuster hit, La bohème, swept up huge audiences. Tosca, a thriller, secured his reputation as a crowd-pleaser. Then came a western, La fanciulla del West, premiered in New York; a melodrama, Madama Butterfly; an operetta, La rondine, and Il trittico, a trio of voguish one-act experiments.
By the dawn of the Jazz Age, Puccini had declared his opera career over and done. Four tumultuous decades of sustained artistic reinvention had drained his physical and mental energy. On November 29, 1924, Giacomo Puccini died. No composer before or after has ever truly equalled his enduring popularity or towering commercial success. Hum any aria by the grandmaster of melody and chances are a thousand other opera lovers will be humming the same tune, almost a certainty if the selection happens to be from La bohème. Puccini, one-time penniless student from Lucca, never forgot his youth. The experience stayed as fresh for him as it is for us however often we choose to revisit the seasoned maestro’s bittersweet reimaginings.
The Canadian Opera Company rounds out its 2013 fall season with a singer-centric presentation of Puccini’s exquisitely poignant tale of love and lost innocence. Advancing the clock half a century later than the opera’s original 1840s time frame, director John Caird guides his captivating young cast through turn of the century Paris, freeze-framed at the height of the Belle Epoque.
Adapted from novelist Henri Murger’s period best-seller, Scènes de la vie de bohème, published in 1851, librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa laboured faithfully to create a deliberately sketchy story arc tied to a series of loosely linked vignettes. Comedy and tragedy co-exist throughout Puccini’s touching romance although inevitably never in perfect balance. No amount of laughter can ever possibly drive away all the tears.
It is the day before Christmas. Marcello and Rodolfo, one a painter, the other a poet, are freezing in the miserable garret they share with two other fellow bohemians. Roommates, Colline and Schaunard, return from scrounging a few francs on the street. After outwitting their landlord, who unexpectedly turns up demanding the rent, everyone but Rodolfo heads for a nearby restaurant to celebrate. Rodolfo has some writing to finish. A knock at the door interrupts his concentration. Mimi, a neighbour, enters in search of a light for her candle. It is love at first sight. Suddenly she faints. Quite clearly she is very ill. A sip of wine soon revives her but as she is about to leave, Mimi discovers she has lost her key. She and Rodolfo search for it in the darkness. Their hands touch. They fall into each other’s arms.
At the Café Momus. Rodolfo introduces Mimi to his artist friends. All at once, a striking young woman sweeps into view. It is Marcello’s ex-lover, Musetta. The two have had a stormy history. Marcello tries to ignore her but finally surrenders to the pretty grisette’s flirty charms.
Cold, snowy months later, a pale, sickly Mimi arrives at a tavern near the city gates where Marcello and Musetta are earning their keep, painting and singing. Unaware that Rodolfo has spent the night inside, Mimi pours out her desperate tale to Marcello. Rodolfo has taken to uncontrollable outbursts of anger and jealousy. Marcello comforts her as best he can before confronting an equally tortured Rodolfo. Mimi quickly slips out of sight. Rodolfo confesses he has turned Mimi away, not because of any infidelity on her part. Mimi has consumption. The hard life they share is killing her. A fit of coughing betrays Mimi’s hiding place. While Musetta and Marcello feud as usual in the background, Mimi and Rodolfo vow to share one last precious spring before they part.
Spring arrives. The bohemians are back in the garret. Rodolfo and Marcello have separated from Mimi and Musetta. Poet and painter are finding it difficult to work with images of their lost loves crowding their thoughts. In burst Colline and Schaunard to cheer them up with a mock dinner party. The highjinks are short-lived. Musetta enters with Mimi. Mimi is dangerously weak. Musetta surrenders her earrings to Marcello to pawn for medicine. Colline will trade his overcoat. Rodolfo and Mimi remember happier times. Mimi declares her love for him will never fade. A doctor is summoned but before he can arrive, Mimi dies.
The COC’s new production, a co-venture with Houston Grand Opera and San Francisco Opera, is dramatically very much a concept-driven La bohème. Working with a palette of appealingly bright performances, director Caird engages principal characters as participants, both active and implied, in this period-flavoured staging of Puccini’s eternal love story. The results are hit and miss.
Mimi’s poignant dying reiteration of her moving Si, mi chiamano Mimi (“Yes, they call me Mimi”) is cleverly cued by a quote she reads in Rodolfo’s journal hastily written by him during their first meeting. The device works well, giving an already heartrending scene expanded resonance.
The abundance of faux bohemian artwork adorning the production is more problematic. Marcello’s paintings, vaguely Impressionistic, form the core of designer David Farley’s sets, a jumbled collection of mock-painterly flats and unframed canvases. Yet, for all their originality, the resulting visuals are curiously uninspired. Marcello has literally painted the town and Paris has seldom looked quite so dull. Even the bustling crowd in the opera’s lively Café Momus scene seems dispirited.
As for the extended influence of the other bohemians, David Caird hints in his program notes that La bohème’s resident musician, Schaunard, is to be seen as represented by the production’s real-life conductor in the pit. The link is tenuous to say the least. Any trace of philosopher Colline’s stamp on stagecraft is even less evident.
But this production is not about director conceits. Or scenery. It is music, not dramaturgy, that commands attention here. The superb orchestral and vocal skills on show in this La bohème are nothing less than thrilling. Every principal member of the cast sings with great flair and tunefulness, each embodying that seamless blend of spinto and lyric technique so essential to this repertoire. Puccini’s celebrated speech-inflected parlando recitatives have never sounded better. Arias are gorgeous.
As the first of La bohème’s double pair of troubled lovers, Dimitri Pittas (Rodolfo) and Grazia Doronzio (Mimi) perform with truly engaging tenderness and sweetness. Pittas in particular exemplifies a fine degree of vocal polish with his gleaming, Italianate tenor. Doronzio’s wistful, shimmering soprano, casts an enchanting spell, never more magically than in her soaring contribution to Puccini’s justifiably iconic duet, O soave fanciulla (“O sweet girl”). Both young singers are irresistible and enchanting with sophisticated, fully-developed sounds.
In the roles of Marcello and Musetta, Joshua Hopkins and Joyce El-Khoury argue, rage, insult and love, baritone and velvet-voiced soprano supremely well matched. The Marcello character takes on added visibility in this La bohème making him virtually Rodolfo’s equal in terms of dramatic presence. Hopkins, a limber, athletic singer, achieves similar stature musically. El-Khoury has frequent spotlight turns, as well. Her lovely Quando me n’vo (“When I walk out alone”), Musetta’s personal anthem of independence, is simply charming, tinged with just the faintest hint of sadness.
With his engaging high note friendly baritone, Philip Addis gives us a playful, fun-loving Schaunard. In the role of Colline, philosopher-to-be, Christian Van Horn employs a ripe, robust bass-baritone instrument brimming with gravitas and budding wisdom.
Visiting Italian grand opera specialist Carlo Rizzi conducts the splendid Canadian Opera Company orchestra, delivering the full sweep and nuance of Puccini’s magnificent score. Harmonies are lush and gorgeous, orchestral tone warm and all-embracing.
Two different principal casts featuring three different Rodolfos alternate over the course of the COC production’s unprecedented twelve performance run.
Although not as theatrically groundbreaking as its director suggests, this musically sumptuous La Bohème finds its way into your heart.