Bachtrack: A timeless production of  La bohème in Toronto

Bachtrack: A timeless production of  La bohème in Toronto

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“And the moon is so near.” My notes, taken in darkness, have magically disappeared. It turns out that my pen doesn’t work on slightly damp paper. It seems I had lost my critic’s sangfroid and was unable to hold back the tears at Rodolfo’s confession of love (from Samoan-born tenor, Pene Pati) addressed to the fragile yet diamond-clear Mimì (Pati’s wife, Egypt-born, New Zealand-raised Amina Edris). And this was just Act 1..

This is the undying magic of the opera that is all about dying: the opera where ‘nothing happens’, but life – and death – happen all the same. Bohème may be the best answer to the question: what is so special about opera? It is also a strong argument against opera’s supposed irrelevance to real life: Puccini’s verismo masterpiece still makes us sob, partly because we have all dreamed, loved and lost, partly because he had mastered every trick of the opera composer’s trade. As hard (though not inconceivable) as it may be to stage Bohème badly, it takes a special blend of creativity, artistry, and integrity to transcend time and place while still remaining loyal to the original setting. John Caird’s 2013 production (a collaboration between COC, Houston and San Francisco) has the magic formula, even in this its third revival, directed by Katherine M Carter.

The power of Caird’s concept, brought to life by designer David Farley, is in its placing of art on a par with love. After all, the opera is not called Mimì, or Rodolfo e Mimi. Rather it is named after its milieu. Caird invites us to live, like the protagonists, inside art, displaying a myriad of canvasses, some unfinished, some facing away from us, some making up the setting itself. The artists’ garret is further cluttered by piles of books and manuscripts, among which the four penniless lads share a sitcom-like playfulness, marrying the insouciance of youth to the Belle Époque idealism of suffering-equals-art. 

Joo Won Kang’s Marcello has the range and power to keep up with and even challenge Pati’s ringing Rodolfo; Justin Welsh’s Schaunard is suitably rough-hewn, while Blaise Malaba’s Colline maintains a philosophical quietude that blossoms in his final-act eulogy to his overcoat. As an ensemble they are as believable as they are individually.

The spirit of Paris is everywhere. Thank goodness there is no Eiffel Tower in view – there is a difference between authenticity and cliché. Instead, we are transported to the City of Light through the world of turn-of-the-century French paintings, admittedly perhaps more Montmartre-style than Quartier Latin. Toulouse-Lautrec-type doodles feature on the curtain. The chaos of Café Momus has the lighting of Picasso’s Le Moulin de la Galette, the bustle of Renoir’s evocation of the same venue, and Lautrec’s Au Moulin Rouge. Charlotte Siegel’s Musetta, beguilingly sung and deliciously acted, looks like a direct lift from the last of these. The children are delightfully mischievous, and the military band is hilariously bizarre. Contrasting with the pastel colours of the first act, everything here is painted in bright splashes. This should be how the kids felt in Mary Poppins when they magically jumped inside a picture. There is a deceptive spontaneity to the acting (the choreography has to be precisely worked out if chaos is to be averted). There is a vital energy and chemistry between the characters, and Jordan de Souza releases a vibrancy from his orchestra to complement its velvet-cushioned support in the love scenes.

Caird’s staging is fully aware of when Puccini’s pitch-perfect music invites mimicry in the acting and when it can be trusted to take the lead. It is the orchestra that wakes us up to the cruelty of the winter cold at the Barrière d’enferin Act 3, and the harp that makes us shiver. The stage here is minimally lit and set, with Marcello’s paintings once again teetering on the cusp of art and reality. It is also the orchestra that fills in the blanks as Mimì runs out of breath and that paints the idyllic world in which the lovers can transcend jealousy, suspicion, fear, and even death. 

The final act returns to the garret, where most of Marcello’s canvasses are now facing away, as he and Rodolfo contemplate having lost their respective muses. Now the colours are those of autumnal dusk. “You mean sunset,” responds a dying Mimì to Rodolfo, who has compared her to the dawn. Love once again slows down time, and the music is almost literally breathtaking in the delayed arrival of Mimi’s last moments. Here, as throughout, de Souza admirably resists the temptation to superficial sentimentalising, simply letting the music expire as Mimì does. Finally the candle that brought together the fates of the two lovers quietly blows out. Try staying dry-eyed at that.