‘What can you say about a 25-year-old girl who died.”
That’s not a plot summary of La Boheme – it’s the first sentence of Erich Segal’s shlocky 1970 blockbuster novel Love Story. But it could be a precis of Puccini’s opera. There’s something very pop culture-y about Boheme, the story of a group of high-spirited, if poor, Parisian artists, whose lives are touched by love and eventually tragedy. Think an episode of Friends where Rachel dies at the end.
What saves La Boheme from sticky sentimentality is a superb, heart-rushing score . It’s not just the famous melodies, securely ensconced in the pantheon of Opera’s Greatest Hits. It’s the amazing subtlety of the score, which employs leitmotifs and repeated phrases just as often as any Wagnerian warhorse. Boheme’s score is a complete masterpiece, unjustly neglected and often ignored even by the musicians who are performing it.
Thankfully, conductor Carlo Rizzi, who is in the pit for this new Canadian Opera Company production of the Romantic classic, understands this music to its last dotted note and crossed rhythm, and conducted a fine COC Orchestra with a loving attention to Puccini’s cleverly constructed and emotionally satisfying score. The orchestra was the star of the show.
Not that a fine opening night cast didn’t express beautifully the sad inevitability of lovers who come together and part, sometimes through jealousy, sometimes through tragedy, sometimes just for the fun of it. With Rizzi’s relatively brisk tempos propelling them through the opera, Dimitri Pittas as Rodolfo and Grazia Doronzio as Mimi sacrificed a bit of power in their famous arias in Act 1, but made up for it in those later scenes when they are in anguished conversation with each other. Then, Pittas’s clear tenor voice and Doronzio’s soaring soprano drew us in to their emotional turmoil, and made us forget the somewhat overemotional drama we were watching. In fact, they made us forget it entirely. Joshua Hopkins was perfect – conversational and believable – as the lovestruck painter Marcello, and his paramour, the coquettish Musetta could have been a little lustier as played by Joyce El-Khoury, but as well, grew in power and intensity as the opera progressed. Christian Van Horn and Phillip Addis were fine as Rodolfo’s and Marcello’s roommates, and Van Horn’s goodbye to his overcoat was a showstopper, as it’s supposed to be.
John Caird’s direction and David Farley’s sets didn’t offend – the conceit that the sets of the opera are versions of Marcello’s paintings is clever, but the darkness of the first act, which suits the artists’ dismal garret, is somehow carried over into the second, which is set in the bright, overlit, overcharged atmosphere of the Latin Quarter. And although, as John Caird has noted, Boheme is sad, without being a tragedy, you have to be careful about overplaying the comedy in the piece. There is definitely humour in Boheme, but the melancholy of Rodolfo and Mimi’s doomed affair must never be compromised. That beautiful melancholy is the essence of Puccini’s emotion-drenched score, and it still can speak powerfully 120 odd-years after its composition. This is not a perfect Boheme, but it’s a good one and worth seeing.