Monday, September 10, 2012

Review: (Ottawa) La Bohème

Michael Fabiano and Joyce El-Khoury (photo credit: Sam Garcia/OLO)

From Rent to La Vie Bohème
The joyous return of Opera Lyra
by Jim Murchison
Saturday evening at Southam Hall marked the return of Opera Lyra after a year of hiatus brought on by financial difficulties. Now even people that have never been to the opera are aware of  La Bohème because of the phenomenal success of the modern musical it inspired: Rent. The other thing that the two pieces have in common is that very few people feel halfway about them. People love or hate Rent and the same thing can be said of opera. I would never be able to convert a zealot one way or the other, but here's the thing: many people that don't like opera have never been to an opera. If you have only ever heard opera on record or seen a production on the CBC it is not the same as going to the opera. Theatre and opera do not play well on television.
love burns brightly, flickers and dies
For all the critcism that opera gets about being unnatural it is decidedly more organic than popular pop-operas and musicals, because it relies on instruments and voices without amplification. It is incredible to hear a voice or a chorus clearly cutting over the top of a full blown orchestra. In fact, other than the lighting, the only modern device that is employed is the use of surtitles to help the audience that isn't intimately familiar with the piece or fluent in the language.
The action opens in the cold bohemian flat in the Latin Quarter of Paris where the tenants are burning writer Rodolfo's most recent work while they sing a synopsis of the plot line; basically love burns brightly, flickers and dies. Well in a way. It burns on in the embers and is carried by the wind and spread through the ashes. The piece is sung beautifully and performed with a great deal of nuance that sets the tone perfectly. Love does not  conquer all. Love helps you survive despite the pain and anguish of poverty.
It is remarkable for all opera's grandness that the performers can sing with voices that carry into a 2000 seat house and still convey the idea of a whisper. There is also opportunity to hear the full force of the chorus at the end of act two. While children jump for toys suspended on vendors' poles, a juggling unicyclist wheels across the stage and our principals sing of their love, the chorus swells to crescendo.
Joe Bascetta has directed this piece with great insight and respect for the characters and the story and it transmits itself with honesty and passion. The principal characters are all fine but Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo is rapturous when he sings his love song to Mimi and drew a large ovation from the audience. Ottawa's Joyce El-Khoury also shone as the alluring Mimi slowly losing her grip on life while passionately hanging on to love. Joshua Hopkins and Laura Whalen as Marcello and Musetta are the other lovers. Their jealousy-ridden relationship is an interesting counterpoint to Mimi and Rodolfo, but what is most profound about their performance is how they convey their devotion to their friends. Peter Strummer is a skilled character actor who provides comic relief in the dual roles of landlord Benoit and sugar daddy Alcindoro. 
Finally one should never underestimate the privilege it must be to be supported by the NAC orchestra under the direction of Alexander Shelley. I have not seen a great deal of opera, but I always appreciate good performances. Perhaps the Rent Heads might discover an extra layer of appreciation if they went to see the original inspiration for it. I don't expect it would convert them to opera, but it would be interesting, I think, to explore. In any event it is nice to see an art form resurrect itself. Judging from the audience last night, Opera Lyra should enjoy a full second bloom.

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