La Bohème (1896) by Giacomo Puccini, libretto Giuseppe Giacosa & Luigi Illica. New COC coproduction with Houston Grand Opera and San Francisco Opera. Conductor Carlo Rizzi, director John Caird. Full cast & info here. Seen on October 6, 2013.
[Have a look at my idiosyncratic intro to La Bohème over on Xtra!]
This is a sweet, non-fussy, compact and cosy new production of La Bohème that stays traditional but luckily without many of the attributes that traditional productions tend to have (lavishness, sets that invite applause, literalism, nostalgia). Poverty in it is believable, rather than Zeffirellian, and the old-fashioned revolving set changes between the acts is part of its goofy, low-budget charm. All the walls of the set are made out of Marcello’s paintings, and both the garret and the city of Paris are constructed out of canvasses of varying sizes. This all works rather well. The entire set (this is my impression) occupies perhaps about one third of the stage space — no need to go in further down, you find yourself thinking — and this of course enhances intimacy and complicity. The Café Momus scenes of Act 2 are crammed with people with barely any elbow room, just like an actual square of this type in Paris would be on a busy day.
Carlo Rizzi competently leads the orchestra through the many changes of weather: lyrical, comic, pompous, dramatic, heart-rending, one following the other seamlessly. Puccini is a master manipulator, and there are parts of Mimi’s first aria where, if all is sung well, the chords surge in joyous desperation and my tears just appear as if somebody turned on a tap. (This deserves merciless teasing, and is not a very sophisticated approach to musical analysis. But it’s what happens. I don’t even like Puccini very much, so you can imagine how I feel about it.) Soprano Grazia Doronzio passed this test quite well. Hers was a petite, dark-haired, appropriately timid but also a serene, almost positive Mimi. Her palette for colouring the arias for Mimi is wide-ranged, and her acting was solid.
Joyce El-Khoury showed off her considerable comedic talent as Musetta, and the quartet of men didn’t sound a single false note (Joshua Hopkins as Marcello, Dimitri Pittas as Rodolfo, Christian Van Horn as Colline and Phillip Addis as Schaunard). They acted well, they had the chemistry, they danced and joshed in their choreographed scenes, all the while singing their characters accurately and imaginatively. Each had a distinct personality. Christian Van Horn made the most of his small part and he found the perfect tone (serious, no hamming) for his arietta to the overcoat.
Some of the stage direction was occasionally surprising. When Mimi came into the garret for the first time, instead of sitting down, she flopped down on to the floor. It was reminiscent of the comedic missed chair routine so no wonder I heard two people behind me giggling. On the upside, there was some really good blocking in the death scene: Caird dispersed the actors around the room, and gave each a silent action to express their grief. The final scene of Act 3, with the two couples breaking up simultaneously and in two very different styles was tight, well-paced and precise, with something of cinematic editing to it.
It’s a gemütlich production that narrowed its parameters first, then achieved a massive amount within those limits. The narrowing down proved a smart gamble.
Photos: Michael Cooper. Top: Joshua Hopkins as Marcello, Dimitri Pittas as Rodolfo, Christian Van Horn as Colline and Phillip Addis as Schaunard, Canadian Opera Company 2013 Production of La Bohème. Bottom: the Cafe Momus scene from the same production.