Friday, December 2, 2011

Review: (Toronto) La Bohème

La Bohème, the Canadian way 
The sound of preconceptions falling...
by Axel Van Chee

I have a confession to make: Puccini’s La Bohème occupies the crowning spot on my “Top Ten Most Hated Opera List”, and I have seen more than 20 productions of it in different opera houses to continue to justify my belief. Why I still keep seeing it is a subject for another debate, but it was with trepidation that I went to the production put on by Against the Grain Theater billed as “A modern love tale told in English”. After all, not only is it my most hated opera, it is stripped to the bare bones, updated by a few decades, with a brand new libretto in English, and all crammed into a bar while a blue grass concert is playing right next door through very thin walls. Two hours later, I must admit that I had, possibly, one of the most entertaining evenings I’ve ever had at an opera.

The triumph of the evening went to Miriam Khalil’s Mimi.

The updated setting and the English lyrics was fresh, often cheeky, and immediately engaging although not always easy to sing to. Director/librettist Joel Ivany created people that the audience can at once relate to and believe in. After all, we all know someone who can’t make the rent, but somehow has an iPhone. And how often do you hear the tenor sing at the top of his lung “this pen is an a*#?!” and think it is completely quaint? The clever use of the bar in Act Two was a riot. Lindsay Sutherland Boal’s Musetta fully utilized not only the entire bar top, but also the audience to her full advantage with her boisterous charms.

AtG assembled a strong cast who worked together with great chemistry and from the look of it, had plenty of fun in each other's company. The singing was largely excellent. Singing the tenor lead, Ryan Harper made fantastic efforts in dispatching his arduous aria in Act One, although his voice only really bloomed after Act Two. Justin Welsh was a larger than life Marcello, and Keith Lam was a comically animated Schaunard. Neil Craighead was a surprisingly fantastic Colline with a velvety lower range.
The triumph of the evening went to Miriam Khalil’s Mimi. Singing with ease and conviction, her dusky tone voice easily dominated the theatre even with a whisper. She was also a consummate actress with great diction. My friend who is hard of hearing did not always know what was going on, but understood every word Mimi said.

The unfortunate placement of the piano meant that it often was not balanced and/or overpowered the singers (depending on where you sit), but Music Director/Pianist Christopher Mokrzewski played it with joy and panache. His playing also revealed many nuances in Puccini’s score which I had not observed in previous listening. The chorus sang with energy and amusement.

Did AtG change my opinion of La Bohème? I’m not sure, I have to mull it over a bit more. But I do whole-heartedly recommend this production. Plus, a little opera with your beer never hurts anyone.

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