An Old Take on a Classic Proves Unexpectedly Fresh

The impressionistic Parisian skyline that graced the screen over the Queen Elizabeth Theatre stage last Saturday night promised concertgoers that Vancouver Opera’s latest mounting of La Bohème would be staying true to the mould of tradition.

The opera company known in the past to have mounted some unconventional productions of opera classics – such as a Fidelio set in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, or a Barber of Seville which unfolded in an Italian film studio in the 1930s – didn’t stray far from the look and feel of the original 1896 production on this one.

Conventionality, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to pander to expectation, and, as was the case on Saturday, fidelity to tradition often gives us more breathing room to exceed it.

As the impressionism on display before the show indicated, therefore, the mis-en-scène throughout the opera remained faithful to its fin-de-siècle Parisian setting, from the brick-and-mortar garret set in the famous Latin Quarter during the first and fourth acts, to the bright and painterly flourishes of crimson in the celebrated outdoor scene of Act 2.

This sense of fidelity to inherited wisdom around the staging may have also allowed the singers room to explore the nuances of a familiar score in surprising ways.

Of the men, Étienne Dupuis’s Marcello is a standout, channeling both the humour and humanity of the love-stricken painter. His tenor is rich and shifts dexterously according to the colour of the text. By contrast, Rodolfo, the principal male character sung by Jason Slayden, comes off as a little staid and vocally tentative, at least in the beginning. Slayden hits all the right notes, but doesn’t lift the character out of the score and present him to us as a fully-developed vocal presence, although this does change as the story develops.

Slayden’s acting, however, has just the right balance of naivety and charisma that the role demands, which ultimately endears us to Puccini’s aspiring poet.

The female end of this production is more balanced, as both of La Bohème’s central women completely inhabit their characters throughout the night.

Krisztina Szabó’s Musetta is coquettish and full of bravado. She storms the stage in Act 2 and seems to occupy it for the duration of the scene as the red centerpiece of set designer Erhard Rom’s visual feast. Yet Szabó gives her Musetta enough space to develop, adding texture to the characterization, particularly in the heartfelt moments of the final act when she bursts upon the festivities of the male quartet with a dying Mimi.

Dupuis and Szabó are perfectly matched here as the foil couple to the central love affair between Mimi and Rodolfo. The stage business between the two is totally believable as arising spontaneously, and their chemistry is evident from the moment they first share the stage together.

Marianne Fiset’s Mimi, though, is unquestionably the star performance of the night. The facility with which Fiset modulates her voice and the amount of clarity and depth she brings to her characterization of Mimi are disarming. She lilts in her first scene with Rodolfo in which the two flirt back and forth searching for Mimi’s misplaced key and ultimately fall in love. Her voice softens without losing its tone when her illness is foregrounded, and it quavers with despair as she mourns Rodolfo’s waning affection during the third Act. The amount of control Fiset has over the dynamics of her voice is amazing.

The orchestra under the guidance of Leslie Dala too is wonderfully modulated against the action on the stage, conveying sprightly, shimmering tones during the playful scenes – especially in the children’s chorus with Parpignol during Act 2 (which is one of my favourites) – and displaying a proper amount of restraint and equipoise for the final death scene.

Some subtle multimedia touches aside, this is a La Bohème Puccini would have had no trouble recognizing, which is to the production’s credit. The surface familiarity of Saturday night’s opera allowed the singers, under the direction of UBC Music Professor Nancy Hermiston, to flesh out some of the underlying tensions of the text in fresh ways, both in their acting and singing.

In the end, being faithful to the original and allowing your singers room to stride within the confines of the composer’s vision can, if done well, yield new insight even in a work as overproduced as La Bohème is. You don’t have to resort to a superficial re-rendering of a masterpiece to make an old opera do new things, and Vancouver Opera’s La Bohème proves it.