There’s something about Puccini’s La Bohème. “It’s the best thing there is,” explains Nicholas Cage’s character in Moonstruck. An opera about the romantic misadventures of starving Parisian artists, Bohème lacks the opulence and epic scope traditionally associated with the genre’s late 19th century golden age.
Yet it has consistently been one of the top three most performed operas in North America, and according to Opera McGill director Patrick Hansen, it’s probably the most beloved: “I think a lot of people would say Bohème is the numero uno,” he told The Daily in an interview. The opera’s production value more than makes up for its subject matter’s dearth of decadence: with a cast made up of 100 students and one dog, it’s the biggest and most expensive of the 15 operas the company has mounted over the past four years.
Hansen has no problem accounting for Bohème’s perennial appeal. “I think the thing that really makes it powerful is that it’s a story about young people – very passionate artists, musicians, painters, philosophers…students, basically.” Fans of the Broadway show Rent, he pointed out, will notice that the musical lifted its basic plotline, characters’ names, and whole swaths of music from Puccini’s piece. “It’s just an opera about passion and love and being youthful, and it hits older people, it hits middle-aged people, its hits young people the same way. You know, it’s the bohemian lifestyle,” he said.
But Philippe Sly, who plays the painter Marcello for the first half of the production’s run, thinks that university-aged viewers will feel a special affinity with the storyline. “Just as a student, as a young person, someone who’s trying to find their own individuality, to define it…I can really relate to my character in a kind of profound way,” he said.
La Bohème is an opera entirely about ordinary people trying to navigate ordinary relationships, and a weak rapport between actors can make the entire thing fall flat. This cast has no such problem. From the very first scene, the actors portraying the motley crew of beatniks play off each other with sketch-comedy timing and an irresistibly youthful sense of fun. Hansen explained that his primary focus as a professor has been to help the actors physically embody their characters; for the male actors, this involved developing more exaggerated and polished versions of their day-to-day student selves. “We could have placed this in the McGill ghetto. It would have been easy,” Hansen laughed.
Instead, he and conductor Julian Wachner took a more traditional route, taking their cue from Puccini’s own inspiration – Henri Murger’s La Vie de Bohème (1851), a collection of linked vignettes set in Paris’s Latin Quarter in the 1840s. Their decision not to modernize the setting only throws the continuity between then and now into sharper relief. “These people on the stage are just like you, except from a century ago,” Hansen explained.
But there is, of course, one major difference: the people onstage are jaw-droppingly talented. Elias Berberian, who plays Rodolfo, has a voice that is booming and velvety-smooth, skipping sweetly over the notes with perfect pitch; Sly’s sonorous verbrato is no shabbier. Moments when the four male leads harmonize could melt even the most stubborn opera-phobe. Moon-faced Véronique Coutu plays tragic, tubercular Mimi with a sweetness that is at first kind of cloying, but well-matched to lines like, “I’m happy and I love lilies and roses.” She comes into her own as the agonies of love and illness begin to take their toll – the weight of her desperation is palpable. Hiather Darnel-Kadonaga hits the nail on the head as Musetta, the squealing coquette with a heart of gold. You can hardly blame Hansen for boasting that this is the easiest production he’s ever directed, “because the cast is so talented.”
Hansen and Sly agree that this is the ideal show for first-time opera-goers to dip their toes in the water. “It’s almost made for ADHD folks,” Hansen said. “Seriously, it moves so quickly – there’s not a wasted moment.” “Very tight knit,” Sly added. His director agreed: “Exactly. It goes from one great moment to another great moment to another great moment.” The two only have one final warning: newcomers might just get hooked.