La Bohème is one of the world’s most enduring love stories and operas of all time. And love is definitely in the air in Vancouver Opera’s (VO) beautiful staging. This production is a larger-than-life vintage postcard of Paris, set for the most part in the 1920’s. André Barbe’s Parisian set of cafes and shops lining a bustling city street, is complemented by his period costumes and Guy Simard’s luminous lighting, altogether painting a superb vision. And the first-rate cast performances, accompanied by VO’s exquisite orchestra under the direction of conductor Judith Yan, make this telling of La Bohème an excellent artistic work.
With a masterpiece of a score by Giacomo Puccini, La Bohème was first performed in Turin, Italy, in February of 1896. It of course provided the inspiration for Rent. The story follows the romance between starving artist Rodolfo and Mimi, a young girl dying from tuberculosis. And while love is the main theme of the show, there’s also the underlining theme of poverty and classism.
Under the direction of Renaud Doucet, this production takes a unique spin on La Bohème, opening with a newly created prologue. When the curtain rises, we find ourselves in a flea market in present-day Paris, where antiques, art, furniture, and knick knacks are on display for hordes of tourists. The intent is to show that time is non-linear - our present day is always textured by memories and experiences of what has come before us. In this scene, we also see society’s less fortunate among the crowd of upbeat tourists.
All of this happens as an exquisite female singer performs J’ai Deux Amours and Paris, Paris, Paris. A tourist suffering from cancer, played by France Bellemare is in awe of what she sees around her, and as she starts to fantasize about what life was like in this neighbourhood years ago, we descend into our story of La Bohème, set in the 1920’s. we meet Rodolfo and his crew of buddies, as well as their rent-hungry landlord William Grossman. We are later also re-introduced to Bellemare when she re-enters the stage as the character of Mimi, Rodolfo’s ill-fated love interest.
The second half opening is a bit odd, as it once again takes place in present day, this time in some sort of unexplained industrial/nightclub area, where an abundance of workmen has to fight their way through the gates so they can sweep the area. Moments later, a group of women enter to deliver dairy and poultry goods, while also setting up a union protest. In the midst of this, there’s a young woman in a party dress on her cell phone, who later exits the stage with an unexplained man. There’s also a trio of what appears to be New Year’s Eve partiers.
Yes, the second prologue is quite bizarre and this was responded to by several audience members who uneasily whispered to each other, attempting to seek answers to the peculiarity on display. It was a relief then, when the action of the story re-started, taking us back to the 1920’s.
Let’s elaborate on the positive elements of the show. Ji-Min Park is sensational in the role of Rodolfo. The passion and heartfelt emotions his singing exudes is unbelievable. He sings with incredible gusto and variances in dynamic, but it’s the heart in his performance that makes it so moving. As Mimi, France Bellemare has a maturity about her character that I really enjoyed. She knows she’s dying, and continues to live the remainder of her life with grace and heartbreaking self-awareness. Bellemare colours the phrases of her singing with her maturity and emotions, always producing rich, beautiful sounds.
Sharleen Joynt is a wonderful douse of refreshment as the fun-loving Musetta. She’s always living her best life, whether it involves dining out with her sugar daddy and pet tiger on a leash (a real tiger isn’t used in the show), or sharing steamy moments with her on-and-off again boyfriend Marcello, played by Phillip Addis. But the highlight of Joynt’s performance, and perhaps of the show itself, is her spectacular performance of “Musetta’s Waltz”, which is probably the best-known piece of music from La Bohème. Her crystal-clear soprano voice rings with brilliance during this piece.
While I mentioned this production is gorgeous to look at, the bohemian apartment shared by Rodolfo and Marcello could have been a little more contained. If there was an additional set piece to separate the apartment from the rest of the massive stage, it would make the scene’s location clearer to the audience and avoid any confusion that we were still outside on the street.
In the fourth act the scrim, a phenomenal artistic rendering of the rooftops of shambled houses in Paris, remains down for quite a while, creating a nice effect as we peer into Rodolfo and Marcello’s apartment. Something similar to this would have been nice for the entirety of the apartment scenes, to really transport audiences to the apartment setting.
As I also mentioned, the opening of the second half of the show is confusing. Obviously Doucet’s intention is to show the dichotomy between the “haves” and “haves nots” still blatantly exist, but it seemed strange to jump back into the present day for a few moments before going back to the story.
I did however, enjoy Doucet’s staging of the story, including the lively street scene in act two, complete with an inventive carousel, and comical street entertainers. This scene really characterizes the sparkling, exciting vibe of this production of La Bohème, and also gives the VO chorus, which consists of local adults and children, a chance to perform and have some fun on a big-time opera set.
Vancouver Opera’s La Bohème is a delightful experience, especially during the month of February (Valentine’s Day, and heart month in general). On the evening that I went, the whole experience was thoroughly enjoyable. VO’s staff were very friendly and welcoming, there was an exciting electricity in the air among audience members, and a luminous “LOVE” display made for great photo opps.
Furthermore, not only does this production keep the music and spirit of Puccini’s work alive, but VO has also taken this opportunity to address cancer. In the show’s programme and end-of-show announcement on the projection screen, VO encourages audiences to learn more about opportunities to support those affected by cancer, as well as new research.
Vancouver Opera’s La Bohème runs at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre until February 24. For more information and tickets, visit Vancouver Opera’s website.