Ever since its 1896 Turin première, Puccini's La Bohème has stirred the heart and inspired tears with its tragic tale of bohemian artists living -- and loving -- in 1840s Paris.
The four-act show opera, based on 19th-century writer Henri Murger's Scènes de la Vie de Bohème, still holds that power, with Manitoba Opera's first production of the classic in nine years bringing to life its quintessentially operatic boy-gets-girl, boy-loses-girl, girl-dies-anyway story arc. The three-show run opened Saturday night and continues until Friday.
Canadian opera and theatre director Brian Deedrick, who also helmed Manitoba Opera's April 2013 production of Aida, again displays his clear artistic vision and deft attention to detail, including adding effective bits of stage business to create further textural layering.
Realistic sets by Wolfram Skalicki (on loan from Edmonton Opera), lit by Bill Williams, include a cutaway garret worthy of any starving artist and a jaw-dropping Latin Quarter street-café scene and city park complete with gently falling snow. Maestro Daniel Lipton led the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra through Puccini's lushly orchestrated score teeming with one soaring melody after the next.
American soprano Danielle Pastin, in her MO debut, imbues her lead character of Mimì with heart-wrenching pathos, her clear voice and artfully executed phrasing first displayed in tender aria Mi chiamano Mimì. As she became increasingly overtaken by consumption, her voice only grew in luminosity until her final, poignant duet with Rodolfo: Sono andati?
Rodolfo, performed by Eric Fennell, in his MO debut, often felt eclipsed by the orchestra and the rest of the strong cast, his otherwise fine lyric tenor not always fully projecting and perilously close to becoming subsumed during the aria Che gelida manina. He fared better during ensemble numbers, including a duet with Mimì, where the two contrapuntally play off each other.
American tenor Keith Phares (MO debut) delivers a standout performance as smock-wearing artist Marcello, Rodolfo's loyal friend and tempestuous lover of saucy playgirl Musetta. He painted his character with testosterone-fuelled swagger, brooding about love with Rodolfo during their duet O Mimì, tu più non torni.
The perfectly cast Winnipeg soprano Lara Ciekiewicz, as Musetta, first flounces onstage with her "mummy" and hapless sugar daddy, Alcindoro (bass-baritone David Watson, doubling as landlord Benoit) before delivering an effervescent Quando me'n vo' (Musetta's waltz). The gifted actress embarked on her own emotional trajectory that ends when she reveals a beating heart of gold during the final act.
Bass-baritone Giles Tomkins (MO debut) also crafted a convincing philosopher Colline, who particularly shines during his aria Vecchia zimarra, where he pledges to pawn his overcoat to buy medicine, as did baritone Peter McGillivray as musician Schaunard. The male ensemble's camaraderie became palpable as the four flatmates teased each other, jousted with baguettes and mused about life, love and how they were going to make next month's rent.
Opera's calling card is spectacle, and the Manitoba Opera Chorus (prepared by Tadeusz Biernacki), Children's Chorus (Carolyn Boyes), plus a motley crew of ragtag supernumeraries created enthralling eye candy during the second act's street scene, including their lively Aranci, datteri! Caldi i marroni! Gendarmerie, street urchins, a marching band, a Pierrot character and an all-too-fleeting appearance by toy vendor Parpignol (reprised by Winnipeg's Peter Klymkiw) added to the full-bore sensory experience that elicited gasps from the crowd.
One of the evening's only missteps proved to be MO's pass-the-hat fundraising campaign, awkwardly placed during the brief pause between acts 3 and 4. It would have been so much better to conduct the necessary business apart from the show and not risk breaking momentum. The audience would have happily spent the time absorbing the unfolding narrative or catching their own breath before rejoining the dying Mim¨ and her garret of bohemians on their romantic and tragic journeys.
Nevertheless, the ambitious production received a standing ovation.