1) Puccini's opera La Bohème is one of the most popular in the repertoire and is performed regularly and repeatedly around the world. What do you think is the secret of its success?
Many listeners will know that the rock musical Rent was based on La Bohème, which testifies to its long-lasting appeal.
La Bohème premiered in 1896 and at first was considered by critics to be a less successful opera from Puccini than his first big hit Manon Lescaut. But it gained in popularity with audiences and has since become an all-time favorite of opera lovers. I think the secret lies in in two things: the romantic beauty of its music and the romantic tragedy of its story. Puccini's music in La Bohème sweeps you up into its warm embrace from the moment the doomed seamstress Mimi knocks on her equally impoverished neighbor's door to ask for a light for her candle. This love-at-first-sight encounter involves two gorgeous arias followed by a duet that would melt even the coldest of hearts. The story of this fateful young love moves along at a fast clip in this 2 hour opera, so we soon find ourselves watching this couple split apart and reconcile with yet another beautiful duet where they pledge to remain together until spring arrives. But Mimi's consumption worsens to the point that she returns to Rodolfo's apartment to die and he is left grieving over her body. The simplicity of both the storyline and the characters, two poverty-stricken young Parisian bohemians and their friends, allows an audience to quickly relate to them as they are pulled from real life rather than the more traditional operatic roles of kings and queens, gods and goddesses, or aristocrats.
2) This POV production features the Belfry's Artistic Director Michael Shamata directing his first opera. How did he do?
Shamata quite wisely keeps things as simple and straightforward as possible. He and designer John Ferguson move the timeline forward from 1830s to 1930s Paris, which works well. He keeps stage movement to a minimum and gives the singers plenty of space to do what they do best...sing. The relationship between Mimi and Rodolfo, and the secondary one between Rodolfo's friend Marcello and his girlfriend Musetta, are clearly defined and believable. The only aspect that I felt got away from Shamata somewhat was the difficult cafe scene of Act 2. The chorus looked cramped on Ferguson's set and are kept clumped uncomfortably upstage of the cafe so that we didn't get the sense of the characters people-watching from the cafe windows at various passersby. The other set pieces, on a large and impressive revolve, work very well, especially in the garret room occupied by Rodolfo and Marcello, with historic photos of Paris serving as an effective backdrop.
3) I understand that due to tenor Luc Robert falling ill, a replacement for the lead role of Rodolfo was flown in at the last moment for opening night. What was that like?
This was one of those events that makes me realize what an extraordinary art form opera is. When a singer's voice is compromised by illness, as unfortunately happened to tenor Luc Robert, a call is made to locate someone who can immediately step into the role. Luckily, American tenor Gerard Powers was available and flown in from New York to play Rodolfo on opening night. He has played this role a number of times before and amazed the audience with his confidence and wonderful singing, richly deserving the standing ovation he received. When you witness an opera singer achieving this seemingly impossible task with such flare, it is a rare and wonderful experience.
4) What were your impressions of the other performances?
Sopranos Rhoslyn Jones as Mimi and Marianne Fiset as Musetta both gave strong performances in their respective roles. While it may be hard for us to suspend our disbelief that the clearly healthy Ms. Jones is suffering from consumption, she made up for it in filling the Royal Theatre with her powerfully resonant voice. And Ms. Fiset reveled in the feistiness of the mercurial Musetta, working very well with her romantic counterpart baritone Alexander Dobson as Marcello. The small cast is rounded out well with accomplished work from Alexandre Sylvestre as Schaunard, Giles Tomkins as Colline and Doug MacNaughton in two roles as landlord Benoit and Musetta's elderly admirer Alcindoro. The members of the Victoria Symphony sounded fine as always under conductor Timothy Vernon's baton. All in all, a simple but effective rendering of one of the great romantic Italian operas, not to be missed.