Vancouver Opera opened their 2012-2013 season Saturday with Puccini’s ever-popular La Bohème. Not the most creative or thought-provoking choice, perhaps, but there’s no denying that it attracts audiences – the house was nearly sold out, and there were a higher-than-average number of young people attending. VO has been marketing the opera quite aggressively, with ads all over buses, bus stops, and Youtube. I personally was more interested in the cast than the opera – in my 10 years of listening to opera, I’m sure I’ve listened to at least 25 versions of the opera. However, this was my first time seeing the opera live, and I was totally unprepared for the impact the performance had on me.
It helped that Vancouver Opera had assembled a young, attractive cast who was fully capable of singing Puccini’s deceptively simple music. I believe that La Bohème only works well with a young cast. Unless the singers are phenomenal actors or have something interesting to say about the character, watching more mature singers in the lead roles can be vaguely embarrassing. At the same time, the roles are quite heavy – the traditional light-lyric Mimis, Rodolfos, and Musettas can have issues projecting above the orchestra. Thankfully, Vancouver’s cast had the best of both worlds. All of the lead roles were sung by young singers with large voices that will likely develop into heavier repertoire. Our Mimi, for example, also has Donna Elvira and Nedda in her repertoire.
Yesterday night marked tenor Jason Slayden’s international debut. I had seen him in Seattle Opera’s Attila last January, but to be honest, I didn’t pay too much attention to Uldino. However, I’m glad to have had the opportunity to hear him again, because he has a lovely, elegant tone and is a fantastic actor. His Rodolfo was always sensitive and detailed, and his diction was particularly good. I particularly appreciated his unusually complex portrayal of the character – his Rodolfo is not just the dreamy poet, but also the fun roommate and the emotionally abusive boyfriend. As a result, the love affair seemed real, as opposed to a romanticized idea of young love. His ‘Che gelida manina’ was refreshingly realistic and conversational, and was dramatically as well as musically interesting.
Of course, it would be hard not to fall in love with Marianne Fiset’s Mimi. As I’ve mentioned before, she has a full lyric soprano, so she has no issue with being heard in the ensembles in act 2 and the quartet in act 4. However, she is equally adept at singing softly, and in fact took some shocking risks with pianissimo singing that ultimately paid off. The whole first section of ‘Donde lieta’ was sung very quietly and conversationally, and she later allowed her voice to swell into ‘se vuoi serbarla a ricordo d’amor’. It was a stunning effect, which she later repeated with ‘Sono andati’, sung pianissimo with minimal vibrato. Of course, these dynamics are fairly common, but I’ve never heard anybody else do them so well without sounding calculated. Also of note was her strong lower register – many sopranos disappear in the lower phrases in act 3, but she could always be heard.
Of course, Bohème requires a strong supporting cast to make it a really successful production. However, nobody would have mistaken Etienne Dupuis and Krisztina Szabo as Marcello and Musetta for anything other than lead characters. Their tempestuous affair was portrayed on equal terms with Rodolfo and Mimi’s, and served as an effective foil. In the same way, Dupuis’ vigorous Marcello contrasted well with Slayden’s more introverted Rodolfo. Like Fiset, Dupuis has a large voice, and their duet in act 3 was a highlight. It’s clear that Marcello is the emotional ‘centre’ of the group – though he has no aria, act 2 and especially act 3 revolve around him. Despite his charismatic presence, Dupuis never dominates when he’s not supposed to – his ‘Gioventù mia’ in act 2, for example, was not the usual loud reprise of ‘Quando m’en vo’, but simply an important component in the ensemble.
As Musetta, Krisztina Szabo was more than a match for Dupuis’ Marcello. I was skeptical about the casting at first – Szabo is a mezzo who I last saw as Sesto in Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito. Her other roles (Strauss’ Komponist, Bartok’s Judith, Debussy’s Melisande) are consistent with those of other high lyrics, but I’ve never heard of a mezzo Musetta before. However, she had no problems with the tessitura, and in fact her darker voice suited her conception of the character very well. Many Musettas also sing Mimi, and it’s often hard to differentiate between the two voices. Obviously Szabo had no problem with Musetta’s lower phrases, but the higher notes were no issue either – Musetta is not a role that requires floated high notes anyways. In fact, she did the best diminuendo I’ve heard on the concluding B in ‘Quando m’en vo’. I heard some audience members complain that her acting was too ‘crude’, but I fail to see the problem with a Musetta that takes advantage of her physical attributes – in fact, I would argue that a good Musetta must do that.
It was great to see casting on such a high level throughout the cast. Though it’s not that large of a role, it’s important to have a good Colline – in all of the ensembles, it’s critical to have a solid bass foundation. Stephen Hegedus made the most out of the role, and for once I didn’t wish we could skip over ‘Vecchia zimarra’ straight to ‘Sono andati’. Aaron Durand, who I saw just a few months ago as Danilo in Lehar’s Merry Widow in UBC Opera, was an excellent Schaunard. I believe this was his professional debut, and it was charming to hear so many UBC students cheering him on at the end. he orchestra and chorus were very good, as usual, and conductor Leslie Dala was excellent although there were some balance issues in the first two acts. However, these were resolved by the third act and Dala proved himself to be a sensitive accompanist and collaborator throughout the rest of the opera.
Unfortunately, I can’t say that the physical production was at the same level as the performances. The sets and costumes, rented from OSTL, were very traditional and somewhat cheap-looking. It seems like staging Boheme isn’t as easy as it seems – most traditional productions look too grand, and the minimalist/symbolist productions make the story less immediate. This production was a strange combination of the two, with very traditional costumes and what looks like half of a Zeffirelli production with cardboard cutouts in the background. Particularly entertaining was the bright orange sunset backdrop to act 4 – it was a ‘tramonta’ indeed, but it certainly wasn’t very ‘bella’. However, it was easy to ignore the sets and costumes thanks to Nancy Hermiston’s detailed direction. Any hint of melodrama or stereotypical opera mime was gone, and instead replaced with subtle, natural interactions. What I found interesting was the amount of attention focused on Rodolfo, Marcello, Schaunard, and Colline – this was more a story about friendship than love. Of course, the two relationships (which are definitely not models of healthy relationships, by the way) are critical to the story, but the telling moment comes in act 4, when everyone makes some sort of sacrifice to save Mimi and support Rodolfo. In fact, the final 5 minutes was brilliantly staged – all the characters were very still, as if in shock or uncertainty, and Rodolfo’s outburst at the end was far more shocking as a result.
Also worth noting: La Boheme is often cited as the perfect opera for first-time opera goers. I never believed that to be true – it always seemed idealized and melodramatic. However, I’m starting to see how powerful and totally relatable a good production can be. I’ll be bringing a few friends to the opera for the first time next week – stay tuned!