A COMMENDABLE BUT NOT FULLY CONSUMING BOHÈME FROM VANCOUVER OPERA
Puccini, La Bohème: Phillip Addis (Marcello), Ji-Min Park (Rodolfo), Neil Craighead (Colline), Geoffrey Schellenberg (Schaunard), J. Patrick Raftery (Benoit/Alcindoro), France Bellemare (Mimi), Sharleen Joynt (Musetta), Vancouver Opera Orchestra, Judith Yan (conductor), Vancouver Opera Chorus, Leslie Dala (director), Renaud Doucet (stage director), André Barbe (scenic designer/costume designer), Guy Simard (lighting designer), Queen Elizabeth Theatre, February 14, 2019.
Vancouver Opera’s latest production of Puccini’s La Bohème comes at the midpoint of a season devoted to classic favorites, beginning with Lehár’s timeless operetta The Merry Widow and concluding with Gounod’s Faust and Rossini’s charming La Cenerentola. Puccini’s verismo masterpiece not only demands a well-balanced and cohesive ensemble of principal singers in three of the four acts, but also a juggling of numerous solo, choral, and instrumental groups in the famous Latin Quarter scene of the 2nd act. Conductor Judith Yan elicited an alert and precise rendering of the score from the Vancouver Opera Orchestra, providing the singers with an overall security and freedom to cultivate meaningful interplay with each other. With a few reservations, the direction was satisfying and the staging was visually impressive, allowing the viewer to connect with the motivating fabric of the characters. The major roles were generally well cast, though there were some issues in vocal matching between the leads France Bellemare (Mimi) and Ji-Min Park (Rudolfo), fine as they otherwise were. Sharleen Joyn also brought genuine seductive charm and spirit to the role of Musetta in a Bohème which, overall, turned out less sentimental and tragic than usual.
The libretto of Puccini’s opera is based on the semi-autobiographical novel La Vie de Bohème by Henri Murger, published in 1851. Set in Paris in the 1840s, the story depicts the bohemian existence of young students and artist in a highly romanticized way, contrasting the squalor and sickness of the ‘starving in a garret’ lifestyle with the characters’ idealistic aspirations. The opera strips the narrative to its barest essentials, showing how six young people find beauty, friendship, and love amidst conditions of harrowing poverty. The present production, from the French-Canadian team of Renaud Doucet and André Barbe – creators of Vancouver Opera’s sumptuous Turandot of 2017 – significantly transplants the action to the interwar years of the 20th century while remaining essentially faithful to the plot and characters. Attractions of this Bohème include the stunning period costumes and hairstyles and the extravagant opulence of the Act II Latin Quarter scene, which has all the color, movement, and attention to detail of a Zeffirelli production. The spontaneous flow of this scene, with its innumerable vocal, musical, and scenic effects, is a testament to the experience and vision of Doucet.
The decision to use basically the same sets for each act, with only minor changes (such as closing the shutters of the café and shops for Act III to create the stark effect of a warehouse back alley), minimized the need for elaborate changes during each half of the performance, allowing for a nearly seamless transition from the first act into the second, and from the third act into the fourth. In the first transition, this proved particularly beneficial, as it allowed the viewer to directly contrast the penury of the garret with the gaudiness of the Café Momus and surrounding shops. It was also an insightful touch to perform the first half of Act IV with the scrim curtain lowered, lending the frolicsome horseplay of the four young men a dreamlike quality, and then abruptly raise the curtain for the entry of the ill and dying Mimi, emphasizing the return to grim reality. Nonetheless, using the same sets for the interior and exterior action deprived the opening and closing scenes in the garret of their claustrophobic intimacy. This was mitigated somewhat by the resourceful use of lighting.
Many of the directorial decisions in this production paid strong dividends, though a few seemed questionable. For example, the first act is prefaced by a brief present-day street scene in which Musetta, accompanied by an accordionist, is entertaining a small crowd of passers-by. A lone member of the crowd puts a record of the opera on a vintage gramophone that begins playing the first few phrases of Puccini’s music, with the pit orchestra sneaking in just before Marcello’s first vocal entry. It is clear that this prologue was meant to furnish a ‘once upon a time’ effect, but the interpolation was overlong and jarred with the tone of the rest of the opera. Furthermore, during much of the introductory scene, which involves repartee between the young bohemian artists, the singer portraying Mimi was seated onstage observing the proceedings. It is not clear what purpose this was meant to serve: the initial entries of Mimi in Act I and of Musetta in Act II – which are dramatically significant events in the libretto and in the music – were disappointingly anticlimactic as a consequence, since the singers had already been seen.
In the lead roles of Mimi and Rodolfo, both soprano France Bellemare and tenor Ji-Min Park are blessed with powerful voices that can project to the far reaches of the theatre. However, their vocal timbres did not ideally match. Bellemare has an effortless resonance that can soar above the orchestra naturally and without a hint of strain, while Park’s delivery has a forceful exuberance that occasionally borders on shouting, especially in the uppermost register. They also differ in acting styles, as was evident from their back-to-back arias in Act I. Whereas Park performed ‘Che gelida manina’ while strutting about the stage and gesticulating demonstratively, Bellemare sang ‘Mi chiamano Mimì’ seated at the table, nearly motionless, only briefly getting up and moving to centre stage for the middle portion of her aria. Her stillness was riveting and drew the audience to her character more effectively than any dose of histrionic posturing. Nonetheless, in dramatic transition in Act III, when Rodolfo confesses to Marcello the truth about Mimi's illness ('Mimi è tanto malata'), Ji-Min Park's emotional involvement with the role payed off, and the sobbing he introduced into his singing communicated the character's grief movingly.
It’s a pleasure to say that the other roles were well served by this fine young cast, and the playful camaraderie between Marcello, Rodolfo, Colline, and Schaunard was a joy to watch. Sharleen Joyn brought considerable élan to the role of Musetta, even if her voice was sometimes underpowered: her lines in the last act did not project suitably over the orchestra. Bass-baritone Neil Craighead sung Act IV’s 'Vecchia zimarra’ – Colline's farewell to his overcoat – in a very effective manner, with a redeeming simplicity, well-supported long phrases and judicious control of tempo. Veteran J. Patrick Raftery uniformly delighted in the dual roles of Benoit and Alcindoro.
Overall, the updating of the time period, the 'picture postcard' effect of the set design and a conscious emphasis on the comical element in the men's scenes yielded a slightly different slant on Bohème, one perhaps operating at more distance from its unfolding tragedy. A less sentimental treatment of this landmark opera is always refreshing but I still felt at points that I was more watching the characters act than fully experiencing the emotions they felt. Perhaps not a ‘complete’ Bohème on this account, but certainly an enjoyable and recommendable one on its own terms.
© Nicolas Krusek 2019