This COC production of La Bohème first saw the light of day in 2013. While original stage director John Caird’s vision has its problems, musically, both the singing and conducting in this revival are glorious. Puccini operas need the big voices that produce goosebumps, and there are several of note in this production. Italian maestro Paolo Carignani, to whom Puccini must be mother’s milk, pulled out every dramatic nuance in the score to give us a most passionate of readings.
While it was announced that Brazilian tenor Atalla Ayan (Rodolfo) was under the weather, he, nonetheless, gave a sterling performance. He has a lush, romantic sound, a thrilling top, and a very emotional delivery, all which makes him a quintessential big sing tenor. American soprano Angel Blue (Mimi) is a return to the glory days of Leontyne Price. Her rich, warm expressive voice is filled with character and coated in honey. She is blessed with a soaring top, gorgeous phrasing and the ability to colour every word with meaning. The big Verdi roles like Aida and Amelia are surely in her future.
American baritone Lucas Meachem (Marcello) possesses a hearty, robust sound, full of vim and vigour. He is an energetic performer who brings a lively swagger to the stage. I first noticed Canadian soprano Andriana Chuchman (Musetta) at Spoleto Festival USA when she was in the early stages of her career, and she has gone on to fulfil the promise that I predicted would come. She has a striking voice that is clear and bright without being brassy or shrill, making her the perfect soubrette. She is also an accomplished actress with an engaging stage personality.
One to watch is American bass-baritone Brandon Cedel (Colline). He displays an evenness up and down his register that is cocooned in sweetness, and with no hint of vibrato. His is an engaging, open sound that will surely lead him to the big low-voice roles as his voice darkens and deepens. Talented Canadian baritone Phillip Addis (Schaunard) possesses an attractive voice that is lighter than the rest of the cast, but one that rings pure and true. Reliable Italian character bass Donato Di Stefano (Benoit/Alcindoro) produces the full-bodied sound so necessary for the bluff characters that he portrays.
Maestro Carignani stoked the fires of the orchestra to the point where the instruments threatened to overpower the singers, but the musical accompaniment was magnificent throughout. He understands that Puccini is all about storytelling, and Carignani is shameless in ferreting out every nugget of sentimentality in the score. His conducting may be overwhelming in emotional narrative, but it does grab the heartstrings.
Original director Caird and his designer David Farley envisioned a set whose backdrops are made out of different sizes of canvases that depict paintings of Paris. This concept works for acts one, three and four, but, alas, not for act two, which is the big festive Latin Quarter scene. Most productions incorporate a staircase to give perspective, but because this set is flat, the crowd is squashed together and it is hard to see the various vignettes depicted amidst the revellers. American revival director Katherine M. Carter is, in a word, hopeless. Her act two is one mass of confusion. She has also produced glaring acts of dumbness. In act one, Mimi faints, and Rodolfo just stands there. At least bend down, take her hand, support her head, even while wondering what to do. In act three, the customs officers check some people’s papers and not others. Extras cross the stage in meaningless fashion. Carter is somewhat better in the more intimate one-on-one scenes, but basically, this La Bohème gives the illusion of a stage picture that is sloppy at best, and non-directed at worst.
Now it is the sad fact of life that the meat and potato tenors (read Verdi/Puccini) tend to be on the short side, while the heavy duty sopranos seem to be getting taller. Opera was among the first of the performing arts to engage in racial-neutral casting. Perhaps the last barrier to fall will be tall sopranos and short tenors. Soprano Blue is a half a head taller than tenor Ayan. Some audience members had difficulty with this visual inequality. Will we ever accept this height disparity as we have racial-neutrality? Only, perhaps, if artistic directors keep putting tall sopranos and short tenors on the stage until audiences see it as the norm.
Canadian Opera Company, La Bohème by Giacomo Puccini, conducted by Paolo Carignani, directed by Katherine M. Carter, Four Seasons Centre, Apr. 17 to May 11 (additional performance May 22), 2019.