Khalil "pristine," Barrett "exquisite" in whimsical production of La bohèmeReview
Puccini’s La bohème will forever hold a soft spot in my heart. As a plucky boy soprano, it was the first opera in which I ever performed. So with such an emotional attachment with the story and music of La bohème, my expectations are understandably high for Calgary Opera’s season-opening production.
Consider my expectations not only met, but far exceeded.
Calgary-born director Brenna Corner should be celebrated for her vision in making this production so memorable. Her sense of whimsy permeated everything, from the character relationships to the set design, resulting in an experience where one can sit back and let the drama unfold. In particular, her imagining of the holiday market (Act II) captured the revelry of a street party, with the characters treating the audience with a colourful and palpable joie de vivre that included toy-crazed children can-can dancers on tabletops, and even an exciting colour guard, courtesy of the Calgary Stampede Showband.
Craighead’s rich bass is a voice Calgary Opera audiences will hopefully hear for many years to come.
Amid the din of this busy street scene, the principal characters remain the center of attention. Joanna Latini’s sweeping entrance as Musetta is worthy of any stage diva, complete with jaw-dropping vocals. She sizzles with one of the production’s show-stopping numbers, nd in the opera’s conclusion, Latini succeeds in offering a Musetta who is capable of seeing beyond the superficial, especially when her friend is in need.
Memorably cast as both Alcindoro and Benoit, bass Stefan Szkafarowsky is simply hilarious in both acts in which his characters appear. Szkafarowsky clearly commits to director Brenna Corner’s sense of comedic timing and on this night, his scenes elicited hearty laughs from the audience. From being spun out of the bohemians’ apartment in a drunken stupor to having his face pressed into his date’s bosom, Szkafarowsky is up to the challenge.
(Which brings me to the bohemians: those clever bohemians whose bond of friendship anchors the story of La bohème from high to low.
In his debut with Calgary Opera, bass-baritone Neil Craighead impresses as the philosopher Colline. Craighead’s interpretation of “Vecchia zimarra,” in which he bids farewell to his trusty overcoat, is a standout performance amid this production of memorable moments. Craighead’s rich bass is a voice Calgary Opera audiences will hopefully hear for many years to come.
Calgary audiences are definitely familiar with baritone Peter McGillivray, who recently turned in a celebrated performance as Doctor Bartolo in The Barber of Seville. As Schaunard, McGillivray gives a charming portrayal delivered with warm sonority. As he did in Barber, McGillivray truly excels in comedic timing, and his casting as Schaunard is a fantastic addition to this ensemble.
Brandani brings out some of the orchestra’s best performance in recent history.
On this night, it seemed it took tenor Antoine Bélanger some time to find his comfort zone as Rodolfo. His “Che gelida manina,” while beautifully sung, was most impressive in his higher tessitura when his voice truly soared over the orchestra; to that point, it seemed Bélanger was pacing himself to that pivotal vocal moment. By Act III, however, Bélanger finds his stride, offering a nuanced interpretation of a poet tortured with the knowledge his girlfriend is dying, with a commanding voice and stage presence.
As the painter Marcello, baritone Peter Barrett is simply exquisite. Recent seen by Calgary Opera audiences in last season’s production of Roméo et Juliette, Barrett is blessed with a colourful palette in all ranges of his voice; he truly filled the auditorium with a liquid, sonorous sound throughout the performance. And his portrayal is on point in all facets: playful as “one of the guys,” fiery as the jealous lover, wise as the concerned confidant.
Words cannot fully capture my effusive praise for Miriam Khalil as Mimì. Her performance mesmerized the audience from her first onstage appearance in the bohemians’ apartment, with a pristine voice that Khalil fully delivered for the rest of the evening. It’s not easy to portray someone dying from a physical ailment, but Khalil offers a noble grace in her character’s plight. Along with Barrett, Khalil’s shimmering, vibrant singing were the standout vocals of this immensely blessed cast.
Of course, supporting this cast is some of Puccini’s best orchestral writing. Conducted by Jonathan Brandani, the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra played impressively, although at the beginning, I thought they overshadowed the principals slightly. In Act II, Brandani’s sprightly tempi were delivered with the same joie de vivre as the characters onstage - the young singers of Cantaré Children’s Choir should receive a special commendation for keeping up in Act II. In all, Brandani brings out some of the orchestra’s best performance in recent history, with one of the most recognizable opera scores ever written.
A solid core ensemble backed by a colourful, whimsical vision of Paris at the height of the bohemian movement makes this production of La bohème a real feast for the eyes and ears.