If any doubt remains about the need for a venue worthy of the artistic vision and desire for excellence of the Canadian Opera Company’s brain trust, then the current production of, arguably, the most perfectly structured opera ever written, offers compelling evidence that the move to the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts can’t come soon enough.
From the opening measures of life in a garret (brilliantly rendered by set designer Wolfram Skalicki, with only a drop of oil on the window hatch needed for a smoother effect) to Rodolfo’s last cry of pain, the strong cast didn’t stand a chance of competing with the acoustic prominence of their instrumental colleagues in the pit. Time and again vocal lines, much less their subtle delivery, were swamped by the enthusiastic band; ensemble problems between the stage and orchestra were uncomfortably common; adding insult to injury, when the players of the Act II stage band ventured out of the wings to parade across the lip, they personified “marching to the beat of a different drummer.”
Some of these problems must find their way onto the scoresheet of COC-newcomer David T. Heusel. Heusel’s stick hand is clear and steady, but his left seemed content to mirror its counterpart rather than shape a phrase or reinforce the thousands of dynamic nuances that Puccini went to such great pains to provide. Oh for a true pianissimo or harmonic “hesitato” to lift the proceedings from merely good to exceptional.
Also making their débuts were the doomed lovers. Bülent Bezdüz improved with each act, overcoming a tentative start and pitch vagaries that left his famous “Che gelida manina” as merely adequate rather than memorable. Soprano Elena Kelessidi’s Mimi was far more flexible, marred only by a tendency to push rather than soar to the upper reaches. As a pair, they failed to find the elusive physical and emotional chemistry that is required to fully comprehend their need to drive each other away in order to confirm their passion.
It fell to Krisztina Szabó as the charmingly manipulative Musetta and Gabriele Vivani’s hopelessly smitten Marcello to provide some of the finest dramatic (her deeper than expected level of humanity; his interaction with Mimi) and musical moments (her famous waltz teemed with panache; his rich legato a constant pleasure) of the production.
Special mention must also go to Robert Gleadow who as philosopher/bass presented Colline’s “Coat” aria with near-perfect vocalism and marvellously understated subtext. Victor Micallef’s Parpignol was delightful and Cornelis Opthof’s double duty as the wimpy landlord Benoît and more-money-than-brains Alcindoro were the perfect foils to the looming tragedy.
This La Bohème also marked director Robert McQueen’s first COC mainstage assignment. In general, he managed a well-paced and logical production of the perennial favourite, using the cavernous space to advantage and moving his charges about with forethought—even employing their services as grips (bringing down the bed in Act IV went off without a hitch) as required. Yet there was an inordinate amount of stand-and-deliver (staring out into space; oblivious to the scene) and back-to-the-audience blocking (notably the end of Act III) that served more to disconnect than draw the listeners into the work.
Attempts were made to tie movement to the music (tearing up Rodolfo’s play in Act I missed the pulse; the final act’s comic relief of les artistes camping it up was effective), but now McQueen should dig deeper into the ebb and flow of the score and find a way to marry his overall conception with the rhythm and colour of the music. Then, whether bedevilled by the realities of physical plant or in the finest hall in the world, a powerful unity will transcend any blemish and lift the opera and its patrons to the next plane of experience. JWR