Angel Blue as Mimi and Atalla Ayan as Rodolpho in the Canadian Opera Company’s 2019 production of La Bohème; Photo credit, Michael Cooper
What has made Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème one of the most popular operas of our time? According to Opera Sense, it is number four on the list of those most performed by major opera companies in the 2017-18 season right behind Verdi’s La Traviata, Bizet’s Carmen, and Mozart’s Magic Flute. Yesterday’s gripping performance by the Canadian Opera Company at the Four Season’s Centre for the Performing Arts provided many of the answers.
The opera is far more than the sum of its parts, including the sumptuous colours of the orchestra, the magnificent lyricism of the love arias and ensembles, the pathos of a love cut tragically short by illness and death, and the setting in the Latin quarter of late 19th century Paris with four adorable starving young artists (a poet, a painter, a philosopher and a musician) living a bohemian and narcissistic lifestyle. (Most of us can surely recall days of early adulthood living in a basement flat, struggling with little or no money). It’s not the usual recipe for an opera where nobility and mythological figures are central characters.
Yesterday’s performance had energy and tension from the very start. I had the rare opportunity of sitting in the second row and could see Maestro Paolo Carignani come bounding through the orchestra, jumping up to his podium and launching right into a dynamic downbeat that set the orchestra and the opera in motion. The Italian conductor who led the 2016 COC production of Carmen, was the driving force of the vigour coming out of the gate. One could notice that he was communicating with each member of the orchestra with his eyes, face and gestures, not just giving clear indications and good tempi, but giving a confidence and joyful inspiration to the musicians in the pit and to the singers on stage. The orchestra was stunning in its expressive playing.
This production is a revival from 2013. While it doesn’t have the elaborate sets of the Met’s famous Zeffirelli production with the Café Momus rising from below stage and with a horse and buggy carrying Musetta across the stage, it nevertheless had a real feel of the Parisian ambiance. The Original Director John Caird and Revival Director Katherine M. Carter together with Set & Costume Director David Farley created the atmosphere of a bohemian flat with a wood stove, and festive market with street vendors, marching band, children, and buskers with the main set rotating to transform itself. The hung paintings formed a skyline of Paris. The principal characters were never of the stand and sing variety. They carried the emotion of the story and their characters while singing some of the most heartfelt arias and ensembles in the entire operatic repertoire.
If the orchestra set the tone of the energy of the opera, it was the splendid cast that made this opera a very special event. One can’t say enough about Angel Blue (Mimi) and Atalla Ayan (Rodolfo) who sang their famous arias with great beauty and soulful emotion and who had a chemistry between them that was electric.
Blue, from California and the Brazilian Ayan are both major performers on the world stages. Blue, who performed her role of Mimi at the Met two years ago, will go from here to Aix-en-Provence for a production of Tosca this summer and then to the Met to open a new production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess in September. At age 35, she is at the height of vocal expressiveness. Ayan, who recently performed his Rodolfo role with the Paris Opera and Covent Garden is in demand on opera stages throughout Europe and North America.
The entire group of principal performers was brilliant. The American born Lucas Meachem in his COC debut, was totally convincing as the painter Marcello. His rich baritone voice was both powerful and expressive. Meachem has been getting rave reviews for his roles in opera houses and concert stages of Europe and North America. Originally from Winnipeg, Andriana Chuchman was delightful as the flighty Musetta. Her soprano voice and her presence took over the stage. Brandon Cedel as the philosopher Colline and Phillip Addis as the musician Schaunard were totally convincing.
You will want a hand to hold in the gripping final moments of Canadian Opera Company’s La Bohème..
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A scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s production of La Bohème; photo credit, Michael Cooper
Sandra Horst, the Price Family Chorus Master, as always prepared the Canadian Opera Company Chorus exceptionally and the children from the Canadian Children’s Opera Company under the direction of Teri Dunn acted and sang with charm.
This is a not-to-be-missed production. More than the sum of its parts, it can boast an outstanding orchestra, world-class singers, sets and lighting that create just the right sensory experience, the pageantry of a large cast and drama with visceral intensity. It has all one could ask for except a hand to hold in the gripping final moments. You will need it. Yesterday’s performance was the third of ten in the current run through May 22nd. If yesterday’s full-house was any indication, it might be wise to get tickets quickly.
A scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s production of La Bohème
Photo credit: Michael Cooper
by David Richards
Toronto ON April 29th 2019