A very Canadian La bohème: the latest in Opera for TorontoReview
The Canadian Opera Company’s production of La bohème has been running smoothly, in the able hands of two casts. On Wednesday night, yet another group of singers stepped into the iconic roles of Puccini’s bohemian tragedy, in a special (and free) performance that’s part of the COC’s new Opera for Toronto initiative.
Each year, the COC sets aside a night to show off the young artists of the Ensemble Studio; historically, these have been as a gala-type showcase or a special production of their own. Last year’s foray into the gala format didn’t really do it for me, so I was pleased to see the COC return to what seems like the best option: a unique performance of an ongoing mainstage production, cast as thoroughly as possible with young artists.
John Caird’s Toulouse Lautrec-inspired production of La bohème is a good vehicle for COC Ensemble Studio members Samuel Chan (Marcello), Joel Allison (Schaunard), Lauren Margison (Mimì), and Lauren Eberwein (Musetta); also onstage were Ensemble graduates Andrew Haji (Rodolfo), Neil Craighead (Colline), and Doug MacNaughton (Benoît/Alcindoro).
The whole thing seemed very This Is Your Life. The stage was filled not just with so-called young artists, but with the current faces of Canada’s opera scene. It was a very welcome thing to hear Haji’s Rodolfo and Craighead’s Colline; both singers have spent years with these roles, and they sound beautifully ingrained and organic. MacNaughton is a riot onstage, and it’s good to be reminded of that.
The four Ensemble Studio singers all took on roles that might have seemed, at first thought, like an odd fit; yet they spent the night convincing me otherwise. Chan filled out the space in Puccini’s writing with lovely line, and Allison lent a stoic side to Schaunard. Margison’s Mimì was spacious and honest, and she avoided the easy traps of trying to push out more sound than she has. Eberwein was a more layered Musetta than I’ve seen before, slightly more self-conscious, as though she pep talks herself into her hunt for Marcello.
In my own experience with these Ensemble-centre performances, the thing to marvel at is how the artists deal with the unique pressure. The preparation for this single show can stretch over an entire season, with input from the multiple teachers and coaches who come to work with the young artists throughout the year. With so many cooks in the kitchen, these performances can be a disproportionately high-stakes lead-up to an event that demands confidence and a clear head.
In that regard - and in the great singing - this La bohème was a success. It seemed an appropriate, all-encompassing farewell to the 2018-19 season, to collect Toronto’s operatic talent onto one stage.