SCRUTINY | Canadian Opera’s La Boheme Makes A Welcome Return

Ludwig Van Toronto

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.

Globe and Mail: La Bohème offers reminder of opera’s deep connection with messy, real human life

CATHERINE KUSTANCZY: La Bohème is a story of love, loss and the hard-won wisdom that comes through the experience of both. Based on the semi-autobiographical Scènes de la vie de bohème (Scenes of Bohemian Life) by French writer Henri Murger (published in 1851), the opera explores the life of a group of artist-friends in the Latin Quarter of Paris in the 1830s. Despite the mixed public reception at its 1896 premiere, the opera has gone on to enjoy immense popularity and has been envisioned by opera directors as taking place in 1950s Paris, in a cancer ward and aboard a spaceship.

That the Canadian Opera Company should present a second revival of John Caird’s production (it premiered in Toronto in 2013 and was restaged in 2019) isn’t terribly surprising given the realities facing the performing arts as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. What is surprising is the way in which the Tony Award-winning director and revival director Katherine M. Carter balance the work’s inherent romanticism with the grimy underbelly intrinsic to its source material. Caird, who directed Les Misérables in London and New York, knows a thing or two about depicting mid-19th

century French squalor without making it feel like a museum.

This isn’t picture-postcard, pretty-poor-Paris; In Act One, you can practically smell the cramped garret, living quarters shared by young artist-friends. Marcello (Joo Won Kang) is a painter; Rodolfo (Pene Pati), a poet; Colline (Blaise Malaba), a philosopher; Schaunard (Justin Welsh), a musician.

They rage, romance, make jokes, shriek, sigh, look for ways to eat, keep warm and cultivate their respective crafts. Marcello curses at his painting as Rodolfo mocks the drama he subsequently burns to keep warm; Schaunard tells a comical story about a parrot as the group toasts with wine he procured through his musical-ornithological work. The chemistry between the castmates here is palpable and perfectly suited to the material.

When the ill seamstress Mimi (Jonelle Sills) comes to the door asking whether Rodolfo can relight her candle, he is all charm and poetry, but his colleagues – whose jeers can be heard from the street – are wise to the act. Of course both poet and seamstress soon find there’s something beyond performative sweet talk binding them.

Set and costume designer David Farley uses varying textures (fabric, metal, wood) and patterns to highlight the claustrophobic world in which the characters operate through each of the opera’s four acts. The artists’ garret features a stove that glows ferociously one moment and goes dark the next. Its long, bent pipe slowly exhales lazy spirals of smoke across lighting designer Michael James Clark’s blue-purple haze, a potent symbol of beauty and destruction.

The garret spins to reveal the gaiety of Café Momus on Christmas Eve, its cavalcade of street sellers, rambunctious children (members of the Canadian Children’s Opera Company), and daintily hung paper lanterns implying a moment of temporary merriment amid much larger misery.

The third act is set at the Barrière d’Enfer (Gate of Hell), a pair of Parisian tollhouses named, according to some historians, because of the location’s reputation for criminality. The design and direction here are so evocative one almost expects Jean Valjean to pop out of a sewer. The bleakness of the scene is contrasted by passion as Rodolfo and Mimi reunite, and Marcello and Musetta (Charlotte Siegel) break up – though by the final act, back in the artist’s garret, one sees an emotional maturity in the latter pair, born through terrible loss.

This affecting emotional landscape is fortified by a diverse and talented cast. Tenor Pati’s Rodolfo goes from skilled romancer to scared lover to scarred adult, offering ringing silvery tones to match. His performance of Che gelida manina (Your tiny hand is frozen) is delivered with true bravado. As the flirtatious Musetta, Siegel paints a particularly memorable portrait that moves beyond easy clichés; her earthy performance of Quando me’n vo (When I go along, also known as Musetta’s Waltz) reaches well past the character’s famous coquettishness, making the Act 2 scene at the Café Momus an absolute showstopper. She is greatly complemented by Kang’s rich, flexible baritone, and the two make a compulsively watchable onstage couple.

Sills, standing in for indisposed soprano Amina Edris (she also performs Oct. 22), offers a beautifully sensitive Mimi with careful control and colour. Having toured the role in 2019 for Against the Grain Theatre’s updated version, Sills modulates her delivery for the larger Four Seasons Centre environs, receiving ample support from the COC Orchestra and Canadian conductor Jordan de Souza, who coaxes a gorgeous delicacy from singers and players alike.

Globe and Mail

Meet the maestro from Mississauga, Jordan de Souza, returning home to conduct ‘La Bohème’ at the COC

By Joshua Chong Staff Reporter

Toronto Star

One night, some two decades ago, made a lasting impression on maestro Jordan de Souza and fundamentally changed his relationship with music.

It was a performance of Richard Wagner’s final “Ring Cycle” opera, the epic “Götterdämmerung,” at the Canadian Opera Company (COC). De Souza, at the time, was only a teenager and the production at the Hummingbird Centre, the COC’s former home, was one of his first operatic experiences.

He vividly remembers the “mythical power” of Wagner’s score and how former COC conductor Richard Bradshaw led the orchestra, “like some kind of sorcerer.”

“I was just sitting there, enthralled,” de Souza recalled. “And I didn’t even watch the stage because I couldn’t believe what was going on in the pit: what the musicians were doing together and this sound they were creating.”

De Souza is returning to the COC this fall as the company remounts its acclaimed production of “La Bohème,” running at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts from Oct. 6 to 28. But instead of sitting in the audience, the 35-year-old conductor will lead the orchestra and ensemble that offered him that unforgettable introduction to opera all those years ago.

Though de Souza has conducted Giacomo Puccini’s romantic tragedy numerous times around the world, the personal significance of this upcoming COC production is not lost on the Mississauga native.

“It feels very special,” de Souza said in an interview at the COC’s downtown rehearsal space. “The fact that my mother, nieces, nephews, high school teachers, childhood friends will be there kind of puts everything into perspective.”

Spend any time with de Souza and you’ll likely hear stories of his musical family. It’s them, he said, who led him to the path he’s on today.

The second youngest of eight siblings, de Souza grew up in a household filled with music, “where the idea of three pianos being played simultaneously was very normal.” He, himself, started playing the piano early on before picking up the organ at age nine, an instrument he continued to learn through his time at McGill University.

Even though he’s a professional conductor, de Souza can still spend hours in front of a piano or organ, often playing Bach. It’s an activity, he said, that grounds him.

“There’s no greater pleasure for me, musically, than to practise Bach, slowly by myself,” he said. “There’s something about the complexity of it that lends itself to eternal analysis and discovery.”

That analytical mindset and curiosity also permeates de Souza’s work as a conductor. He lights up when he describes his process of engaging with a score, poring over the phrasing of a passage at his piano or sitting down at his desk to analyze a work’s overall structure.

A score is “still just dead notes on a page. It’s a last testament in a way of a composer,” he said. “My goal is to understand that to the best of my ability … trying to find this colour.”

De Souza has been conducting for more than half his life, first as a teenager in school, where his teachers gave him the opportunity to lead his choir. He then cut his teeth in Toronto as an assistant conductor for both the COC and National Ballet of Canada, as well as the resident conductor for Tapestry Opera. Later, between 2017 and 2020, he was the kapellmeister (leader of the orchestra) of the Komische Oper Berlin.

Though de Souza has explored other forms of classical music, from ballet to choral works — he also wants to try musical theatre some day — opera, he said, will always be home.

“The sheer impossibility of the premise of opera is crazy. We’re going to put a bunch of people in wigs and makeup and shine really bright lights in their eyes, and then they’re going to try and be together with 100 musicians sitting underneath the stage,” he said. “The potential for disaster in opera is so great. I kind of love that: being the guy that’s supposed to hold it together.”

De Souza is a bit of an enigma, a down-to-earth, earnest personality who brings an old-school approach to his work but also a youthful energy and willingness to strike out in new directions.

He talks with equal zeal of his operatic endeavours as his passion for sports. (Though Berlin is his home base, he still keeps up to date with all the Toronto sports scores.)

And he dreams, one day, of bringing those two world together: what if, he asked, he could collaborate with the Raptors and invite some of Toronto’s basketball stars to a classical concert? He also bets they’d play better if they changed their game-day walkout music to Prokofiev or Mahler, or even Beethoven’s sweeping “Seventh Symphony.”

But what drives de Souza is his passion for music education. He talked extensively of his musical upbringing and what society could be if every person had access to those similar opportunities. Even with his busy schedule of rehearsals and performances, he’s still finding time during this visit to Toronto to conduct workshops at the University of Toronto and with students at his alma mater, St. Michael’s Choir School.

“It’s a dream come true to stand on the podium of the COC and conduct this production, but I’m hoping that it enables me to help encourage a better discussion of how we can best serve the next generation,” he said. “That is my greatest interest right now.”

The COC’s production of “La Bohème” runs from Oct. 6 to 28 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen St. W. See for tickets or call 416-363-8231.

Joshua Chong is a Toronto-based staff reporter for the Star’s Express Desk. Follow him on Twitter: @joshualdwchong.