As opera season opens at the Canadian Opera Company, and faithful Torontonians flock by the dozens to the opening night of La Bohème, my eye is caught by a young couple nervously nagivating the exuberant mayhem in the foyer of the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. They don’t look a day over 18. And I remember that this much is universal; La Bohème is still number one on the charts for date night at the opera.
Lest we forget, La Bohème is quintessentially about the tragedy of youth, and this is where John Caird fixes his implacable directorial eye. In this brand new production, Caird teams the Canadian Opera Company with Houston and San Francisco, to create a visually and aurally delectable spectacle that delivers in every sense of the word.
The greatest challenge that any production of Bohème faces is the audience’s over familiarity with its vocabulary. We all know that this story of love and poetry can fit, with equal ease, in a Harlem ghetto, or in the lavishly impoverished Paris of Zeffirelli’s landmark production at the MET (1982). How many times, really, can one reinvent a garrett? And yet, that is precisely what John Caird and David Farley accomplish in an ethereal gesture that brings back La Belle Epoque. As the curtain rises, we are in a garrett of impressionistically cobbled-together canvases. A painting of a Parisian balcony in Springtime is both a painting and the window itself. The set seems to tease us with questions on the nature of referentiality; Marcelo, a painter, dabs at a life size canvas of a sleepy Customs Official, only for it to become part of a scene involving Customs Officials. Caird admits to drawing, self consciously, on the form and palette of the great Belle Epoque painter, Toulouse-Lautrec. Complementing Caird and Farley’s vision, Michael James Clark’s lighting uncannily brings the mysterious indigos and crimsons of Toulouse-Lautrec’s Parisian nights to life, almost suggesting that here it is reality that imitates art.
The gesture to Toulouse-Lautrec is not simply a matter of aesthetics, however. The French master’s fascination with the underbelly of Parisian life – its cocottes and cancan dancers – becomes a vehicle to explore the archetypal “artist’s” voyeuristic relationship to reality. In his programme notes, Caird points out that Toulouse-Lautrec was “capturing all aspects of street life, feeding the desire for the wealthy classes to peer into the seamier side of life.” And in Bohème, we are invited to view the world from the perspective of four artists – Rodolfo, Marcello, Schaunard and Colline. The young men offer four visions of the sublime and the banal of Parisian street life (visions that we privileged opera audiences consume). Indeed, much of the tender irony of Giacosa and Illica’s libretto lies in the way circumstance makes a fool of poetry. While the poet, Rodolfo, might have “the soul of a millionaire,” his verses can do little else than feed a stove to warm his freezing fingers.
Under Caird’s direction, the four artists appear gauche and ill equipped to deal with the complexities of life. The idea of boyish voyeurism is deftly hinted at in scenes where, for example, Rodolfo busily scribbles down the phrases of his beloved Mimì, seeming to pay more attention to her passionate expressions rather than to her passion itself. This motif returns, rather grotesquely, in the final scene of the opera, as the painter, Marcello, feverishly sketches the dead Mimì and the despairing Rodolfo. In this moment, Caird’s La Bohème discards all familiar territory and asks its audience to see, instead, the moral bankruptcy behind the pretty pictures.
It’s hard to go wrong with Puccini’s generously sentimental score. The cast of the COC’s La Bohème is frighteningly young, and they bring a serendipitous marriage of voices in their prime to technical mastery that proves breathtaking. Without a doubt, the star of this evening is the sublime Grazia Doronzio whose Mimì leaves one shaking, reduced to tears, and covered in goose bumps. Ms Doronzio’s voice brings back the glory days of sopranos like Anna Moffo, and her effortless technique demonstrates that it is always possible to revise the givens of opera, and to reveal a hitherto unexplored emotional terrain through the surprise of exquisite skill. It also helps, considerably, when the opera orchestra, under the able baton of Maestro Carlo Rizzi, is so perfectly attuned to the soloist’s performance that soloist and orchestra appear to be one. Such a moment reveals itself in the famous “Si, Mi Chiamano Mimì” when, as Mimì skips through the coquettish confessions of her entirely adorable misdemeanors, she is accompanied by a flute. The precision of both performers in tonight’s performance created an “aha” moment for the listener familiar with the score of Bohème. It made one realize how truly rare it is to hear that passage performed as it is written.
A “must see” production for opera afficionados and neophytes alike, John Caird’s La Bohème asks more questions than it chooses to answer; questions on the discomforting relationship of artifice to reality; questions on our narcissistic obsession with youth. This is a thinking person’s production, which, behind its luscious beauty, leaves you subtly unnerved. It proves without doubt that La Bohème still delivers all that we love, and more.