By: Joseph So
Sitting in the opera house last Friday on the opening night of La Boheme, hearing the lovely sounds coming from the stage and the pit, I kept getting a warm and fuzzy feeling. Diehard opera fans will know that feeling of pure operatic bliss. Like comfort food or a beloved pair of old shoes, a great performance of a familiar piece like La Boheme is sure to warm the cockles of the heart.
According to statistics, the Puccini masterpiece consistently ranks in the top ten of the most popular operas in the world, as measured by the number of performances. A check of the Canadian Opera Company record books reveals that La Boheme was one of three operas presented in the COC’s first season in 1950, the others being Rigoletto and Don Giovanni.
All told, the COC has staged the Puccini opera in 18 seasons including the current one, making it, together with Madama Butterfly, the two most frequently performed operas at the Company. It even went on tour across Canada at one time — I recall seeing it way back in 1975 in Peterborough, starring Canadians Barbara Collier and John Arab as Mimi and Rodolfo.
The current run features the John Caird production that premiered ten years ago, replacing the old and rickety Wolfram Skalicki production, which was so cumbersome that it necessitated three intermissions. Caird’s take on this opera is traditional, non-controversial, and a far cry from some of the Regie-driven updating currently in vogue, mostly in Europe. No, I doubt COC audiences would be too fond of a Boheme set in outer space, like the Claus Guth production currently at the Paris Opera!
Instead, the COC Boheme features simple sets and painted backdrops, pleasing enough to the eyes, nothing complicated, and a cinch when it comes to scene changes. The revival director, Katherine M. Carter, is faithful to the original ethos of Caird. What we get is a middle-of-the-road take on a favourite work of the standard repertoire.
The main pleasures of this Boheme are the voices and the orchestra. Top honours go to Samoan tenor Pene Pati for his engaging and wonderfully sung Rodolfo. His bright and sunny timbre, ample volume with plenty of squillo is reminiscent of a young Pavarotti. Given his excellent top, it was a bit of a surprise that he eschewed the high C at the end of “O soave fanciulla.” Opposite him as Mimi was his real-life spouse, soprano Amina Edris, making a welcome return after her excellent Violetta two seasons ago. Her Mimi is gentle and touching, and the two of them have great chemistry.
The second pair of lovers featured the outstanding Marcello of Korean baritone Joo Won Kang, whose warm timbre and vivid acting are a real pleasure. He was well partnered by the saucy Musetta of Ensemble Studio soprano Charlotte Siegel. Congolese bass Blaise Malaba made an auspicious COC debut as Colline. The rest of a very strong ensemble cast included Schaunard (Justin Welsh), Benoit/Alcindoro (Gregory Dahl), and the two Custom Officers (Korin Thomas-Smith and Gene Wu).
Finally, a special shoutout to tenor Wesley Harrison for his bright voiced and high-spirited Parpignol. And I mustn’t forget the lively children of the CCOC, enough to put a smile on anyone’s face.
For some strange reason, the opening night audience sat on its collective hands after “Si, mi chiamano Mimi,” and Colline’s Coat Song. I’ve sometimes witnessed it in Europe, where audiences would hold back until the end, but almost never in North America with its trigger-happy audiences. Thankfully, the full house finally demonstrated its appreciation by giving the singers well deserved ovations at the final curtain.
Canadian conductor Jordan de Souza returned to the COC after his 2016 debut in Le nozze di Figaro. Still in his mid-thirties, de Souza is considered a major new talent, having already amassed a wealth of conducting experience on both sides of the Atlantic. He led the COC Orchestra in a completely idiomatic performance, eliciting wonderful sounds from the pit. All in all, a suitably festive start to the new opera season. A special note to voice fans — fast rising Canadian soprano Jonelle Sills will sing Mimi on October 22, opposite the Rodolfo of new Chinese tenor sensation Kang Wang, who has sung Rodolfo to acclaim in Washington, Zurich and Hong Kong.
I might just indulge in another round of operatic comfort food! Additional performances on October 11,13, 19, 21, 22, 28.