The Bohos come home: AtG's Bohème is back at the (dive) barReview
Eight years later, and the rent is still too damn high.
By all operatic accounts, Against the Grain Theatre has “made it” with their production of La bohème. It’s a scrappy transladaptation of Puccini’s 1896 smash hit, first put up in 2011 in a seedy bar and with a seedy budget; and in less than a decade, the compact indie opera group has achieved what’s really rare among Canadian companies, reviving it not once but twice, and even sending the whole thing on a cross-country tour.
Arguably, Artistic Director Joel Ivany has started a few trends in AtG’s decade of operation - or at least, given niche opera practices a bit of mainstream momentum. The two major ones: updating classic operas with a contemporary libretto in the language of the audience, and staging operas in bars.
This is the novelty that has hooked crowds on AtG’s now-iconic La bohème. There’s freshness in arriving at a dingy bar to hear Puccini, and the first few minutes of the show are an aural adjustment to hearing the words, “I’m fucking frozen!” sung so beautifully. This Bohème offers a way in, a relevant hook for those who don’t often go to the opera. It’s easy to identify with these modern boho characters, who live in a world of crippling rent costs, Bloor Street West, and the 21st-century paradox that is being broke with a smartphone in your hand.
For those paying attention, Ivany’s libretto only updates details, the kind that are in place to connect character with audience. If we were to strip away the hipster scarves and references to manscaping and the Bloor Street BMV, we’re still left with the original personalities from the libretto by Illica and Giacosa. These are young adults, making a choice - for now, at least - to pursue their passions even if it doesn’t pay their bills, and their camaraderie and love and optimism keeping them from getting entirely too cold.
The neatest part of seeing this latest La bohème was to note that I already have my favourite things about each revival.
Ivany’s La bohème demonstrates what it means to update an opera organically. This is no set of gimmicks, but a modernization meant to maximize the affect of an already-great story. It’s why Puccini’s opera is still so popular in its original Italian form; there is a core to these characters that is true no matter where or when you place them.
It’s also why this La bohème is still a success from AtG. If my memory serves, the libretto always comes with a few timely changes to keep it fresh (although I heard a few details that stood out as mildly dated in our post-#metoo age). And the cast is nearly all new, with the important exception in Greg Finney as Benoit and Alcindoro; his Benoit is as suburban-Canadian-baby-boomer as you can get, and his Alcindoro a pitiable foot fetishist. At this point, Finney is a production fixture, and thank the opera gods for that.
AtG boasts a star Musetta in Danika Lorèn, just the right fit for this layered updating of her character; she’s opposite the smooth-voiced Clarence Frazer as the painter Marcello. Frazer has great nerdy chemistry with his roommates: Giles Tomkins as the stoic dork Colline, Andrew Adridge as the charismatic fun one, Schaunard, and Marcel D’Entremont as the shy brooder with great high notes, Rodolfo. Sweet-sounding Jonelle Sills fits in like a missing puzzle piece, a soft Mimì to temper a wild group of bohemians.
The neatest part of seeing this latest La bohème was to note that I already have my favourite things about each revival. That’s like a little bonus badge that AtG can add to its 10-year biography. The show is still running, at The Tranzac Club on Bloor West through October 25. After that, it heads north for the last leg of its tour in Yukon, November 4-7.