A battered collection of derelict furniture. A horde of empty bottles, accumulated trash, a discarded pizza box. A dusty assortment of worn out audio equipment. A rebellious carpet that refuses to lie flat. A window that opens on a wall plastered with curled sketches, scraps of poetry, dog-eared sheets of music, pages from old books. A brave string of Christmas lights.

A familiar setting. A resonant bittersweet world. Once entered, it cannot be forgotten. Memory overwhelms. The past rushes in. Against the Grain Theatre’s irresistible La Bohème has returned.

Originated in 2011, restaged in 2017, the current iteration of artistic director/librettist Joel Ivany’s ground-breaking chamber opera arrives fresh and bursting with energy at its traditional downtown venue, the boozy Tranzac Club. A 10th Anniversary season opener (and 10th stop on a landmark cross-country tour), Ivany’s touching, hypercharged drama reminds us of what was and what has proven to be. Respected and admired among music theatre aficionados for the wit and insight of its paradigm-shifting shows, Against the Grain has grown by daring leaps and bounds to become a national treasure. This La Bohème shines more brightly than ever, reflecting all the joy and pain of enduring love and loss.

Like its much adored antecedent, Puccini’s soaring tribute to young lives deeply lived, Ivany’s compact four act homage, crisply adapted and translated into English, is marked with detailed co-ordinates that centre his vision of story. It is the small things and offhand mentions that bring the carefully gauged atmosphere of this intense La Bohème into focus. The Gladstone Tavern. BMV Books. Uber. Texting. Bloor Street West Village. Somehow the catchy contemporary references seem more numerous in this presentation. Or perhaps that is more a function of listening more carefully to the playful rhythm of Ivany’s clever throwaway lines. His operatic journey in quick time rewards careful scrutiny.

Objects carry almost personified weight here for Ivany’s arty millennials. Rudolfo slaves at a temperamental typewriter in best, self-defining boho writer tradition. Struggling saxophonist Schaunard’s vintage cassette mix tape betrays his fondness for old school style. Colline’s ever-present watchman’s cap and fingerless gloves suggest a certain emotional all-weather preparedness. Characters are pictured in extreme close-up, intimately revealed, exasperatingly human. No one and everyone is truly alone. No one and everyone is supported.

Appearing as Rudolfo, Nova Scotia native Marcel D’Entremont ably inhabits one of the two principal Puccini-Ivany linked personas that lie at the opera’s core. Effortlessly embodying all the vulnerability, all the romance, all the fallibility that is the endearingly awkward hipster, the fine rising young tenor enchants. This is a performance of immense artistry, D’Entremont’s voice tipped with a clear ringing top descending to a mellow mid to low range, his stage presence graced with enormous heart. “I’m drawn to words and dreaming,” he sings to strains of Che gelida manina. A poignant affirmation of self.

Performing Mimi, soprano Jonelle Sills movingly partners D’Entremont’s character. Inexpressibly tragic, the role, as defined in purely Pucccinian terms, is profoundly archetypal, the innocent almost saintly young heroine who loves, suffers and ultimately dies to redeem others. The humanity of those around her is tested. Friends are left consumed by grief.

Apart from timing cuts and minor tweaks to story — a shift of occupation from seamstress to florist, an encounter with Rudolfo during a power blackout vs one prompted by an extinguished candle — Ivany leaves Puccini’s episodic narrative essentially unchanged. The tale of two young moderns, neighbours in a miserable rundown apartment building, brought together and separated by circumstances neither can control retains all its fundamental time-tested appeal.

La Bohème is grand opera at its grandest, extreme emotion at its most extreme. To willingly adopt, even revel in broad Puccinian convention in the decidedly scaled down environment of a well worn downtown pub takes no small measure of artistic courage on the part of director and performer both.

A sweet, guileless Mimi, Sills’ lustrous liquid stylings and abiding sincerity greatly strengthen Ivany’s irreverent yet still highly respectful theatrical approach.

A reverse subset of Mimi and Rudolfo, woman about town Musetta and painter Marcello as played by soprano Danika Loren and baritone Clarence Frazer, adds up to some of the most gloriously uproarious moments in AtG’s latest high-spirited production. Temperamentally volatile, fuelled by blistering lust, the endlessly squabbling, hopelessly devoted pair positively explodes in Ivany’s riotous Act II. Few beer parlours have likely ever seen as much action at or on the bar.

Loren is a delight, smart and snappy, a chronic unrepentant vamp, her lovely bright instrument polished and shiny as a pair of patent stilettos. Ivany’s take on Puccini’s gleaming Quando me n’vò, “What will you do if I gave myself to you”, is glowingly rendered.

Frazer is no less splendid. Blunt, honest, perpetually big-hearted, La Bohème’s wellspring of plainspoken wisdom bursts to life in a performance rich in understanding. A singer actor at the top of his game, the voice big and rich and round, bearded and brooding and entirely enthralling.

Bass-baritone Giles Tomkins and baritone Andrew Adridge are fellow bohemians, bookish Colline and musician Schaunard. Both are excellent, Tomkins, a boundless source of impeccably timed stage antics, his singing full-bodied and seasoned, Adridge, immensely lovable and sincere.

Baritone Gregory Finney is the bohemian’s dreaded landlord doubling as Musetta’s wealthy Act II admirer, Alcindoro, duped Bay Street financier. A brilliant comprimario player, Finney’s unerring sense of ensemble, particularly evident in his portrayal of drunken rent collector Benoit in Act I, amounts to nothing less than a masterclass in irrepressible, over the top physical comedy.

Playing with great depth and generosity, music director and collaborative pianist David Eliakis stirringly partners singers and players with an astonishingly colourful rendition of Puccini’s inexpressibly affective score sensitively arranged.

This is a transcendent La Bohème, born in the past, existing in the present with a depth of human resonance so strong, so profoundly felt that it eclipses locale. A welcoming production, supremely satisfying and embracing. An instant contemporary classic.

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Above: The company of La Bohème, Against the Grain Theatre 2019. Photo courtesy Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity