The Canadian Opera Company provides a traditional production (that’s a complement) of Puccini’s La bohème at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. Its strengths are a well-sung Mimì (Grazia Doronzio) and Marcello (Joshua Hopkins), and fine directing by John Caird. The set design is very good except for the first act and the orchestral playing is sound. I doubt that there were too many tears streaming down the cheeks of the audience, but most people rightly enjoyed a viewing of the old weepie.

© Michael Cooper / Canadian Opera Company 2013
© Michael Cooper / Canadian Opera Company 2013

Italian soprano Doronzio appeared small and frail, just as one would imagine Mimi to be. Her voice emanated from her like a flower captured in time-lapse photography. She would start slowly and tentatively as in “Mi chiamano Mimì” and then her voice would blossom and become evocative, full of emotion and a delight to hear.

Her lover Rodolfo, sung by American tenor Dimitri Pittas, was good but not as successful as Doronzio’s portrayal. The two worked well in their first act love duet “O soave fanciulla” but he was not always consistent in his singing. Pittas sounds fine in mid-range but his voice sounded strained at times in the upper register. Otherwise, he made a believable Rodolfo but unfortunately, his despairing cry of “Mimì! Mimì!” at the end of the opera was simply lost. I am not sure if it was a miscommunication between singer and conductor but the heart-wrenching shout simply misfired.

Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins sang an exceptional Marcello. His fine, sonorous voice and sympathetic portrayal of the painter stood out and was a pleasure to watch.

Caird directed the four starving artists (the other two being bass-baritone Christian Van Horn as the philosopher Colline and baritone Phillip Addis as the musician Schaunard) very judiciously, providing humour and drama, and making them believable. The friends engage in tomfoolery and a pranks against their landlord Benoît and Alcindoro, Musetta’s foolish admirer (both played by Thomas Hammons), all done in good form and adding a fine balance to the tragic love story.

La bohème needs three sets: a scene in a garret where the artists live and work; a crowded street scene in the Latin Quarter and a scene on a snowy morning outside a tavern on the outskirts of Paris. Set and costume designer David Farley has chosen to decorate the garret with a large number of overlapping canvases covering most of the rear stage. The set looks like a large storage garage instead of a cold attic. The smoke coming out of the stove in the centre of the room is a nice touch but aside from that, there is nothing to convince us that this is an attic.

The set does have the advantage of being convertible quickly into a street scene. Some of the canvasses are hoisted up to the rafters, the others are turned around, and in a matter of seconds we are at the Café Momus celebrating Christmas Eve. The first act is not particularly long and the quick set-change saves us the trouble of having to wait long for entertaining second act.

The Café Momus scene is done well with a boisterous crowd, a fine rendition of “Quando me’n vo’” by Musetta (soprano Joyce El-Khoury) in a beautiful and provocative pink gown. There is a lot going on in this scene and Caird manages the whole thing with expertise. (There will be a cast change near the end of the run and El-Khoury will sing Mimiì for the last four performances.)

Carlo Rizzi conducts the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra and Chorus, as well as the Children’s Chorus, which makes a lively appearance in Act II.

Caird handles the entire production from the intimate love scenes to the crowd tableaux soundly in this well-done production with its several issues. If only we were not cheated of the heart-wrenching “Mimì! Mimì!”

***11