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.