Before Tuesday night I had been to a grand total of two-and-a-half operas, including an excellent and gorgeously sung production of Carmen, and half of a Don Giovanni best forgotten. With such limited experience of opera, I hesitated over whether I should write a review at all, but part of the magic of Against the Grain Theatre’s contemporary take on La Bohème is that it appeals to both opera newcomers and seasoned veterans alike.
I may not be qualified to comment on the technical aspects of this performance, such as how the English-translated libretto works compared to the original Italian, or on the vocal technique of the performers, but I can certainly discuss how the opera works as an introduction to opera newcomers, its timeless themes of friendship, love, and artists struggling to pay the rent, and the superb performances from a universally excellent cast.
This modern “transladaptation” of Puccini’s classic opera is set in present-day Toronto, sung in English, and takes place at a dive bar in the Annex (and yes, you can drink during the show!). Puccini’s characters and music are kept, with some minor updates (Rodolfo is a screenwriter, rather than a poet). The orchestration is stripped down to a solitary piano, but the simple accompaniment serves to highlight the strong voices in this well-rounded cast.
The opera opens with Rodolfo (Owen McCausland) and Marcello (Andrew Love)’s frigid apartment, as they burn sections of Rodolfo’s latest screenplay to stay warm. Joined by friends Colline and Schaunard (Micah Schroeder), who arrives bearing food and beer, they ply the shady landlord with liquor and send him away without the rent he demands. While the others head to the bar, Rodolfo stays behind to work on a script, but when a power outage strikes, he meets Mimi (Kimi Mc Laren), who is looking for someone to light her candle, and they fall in love.
Rarely have I seen a cast as strong as this one. From Kenneth Kellogg (as Colline)’s beautiful aria to his coat, to Owen McCausland (Rodolfo)’s strong tenor, which is particularly heartbreaking in his final tragic scenes with Mimi, there is not a weak link among them. Adanya Dunn is also captivating, introduced as a flirtatious, confident Musetta who does what she wants (including very nearly Marcello in a memorable scene on the bar!), she later shows a softer side as Musetta prays for Mimi to live.
The two standout performances of the night belong to Kimy Mc Laren and Andrew Love though.
Kimy Mc Laren is a wonderful Mimi. Her decline and death are incredibly affecting, aided no doubt by the fact that she imbues her character with a warmth and light that give the audience the impression that she is not just loved romantically by Rodolfo, but is also loved as a dear friend by the other artists, particularly Musetta and Marcello.
A fan of Andrew Love’s since his Les Miserables Toronto days, I was pleased but not at all surprised to see him steal every scene he’s in as Marcello. His characterization is nuanced, showing all of Marcello’s sides, from jealous suitor to clowning roommate, to grief-stricken friend, and it’s always a treat to hear Love’s gorgeous baritone again.
It would be easy for this adaptation of La Bohème to lean too heavily on the local setting, including references with a wink, but the subtler inclusion of details like a shot glass with a blue jays logo, and a casual reference to shopping on Bloor Street West, are just enough to set the scene and spark the thrill of recognition. Although less subtle, I also enjoyed the fact that Colline gets a job at BMV, a used bookstore located across the street that I frequent whenever I’m in the neighbourhood. Modern touches on the set and in the translated libretto add to the atmosphere, with the words, “I’ll text him” sung in a rich baritone drawing chuckles.
As a relative opera newcomer, I can’t imagine a better introduction to the art form than this one. Inventive and interactive (Musetta in particular wanders into the audience during the second act), La Bohème manages to be both laugh-out-loud funny and poignant by turns. The 1896 opera’s themes of struggling artists trying to make a living still carries weight in a world where millennials with four-year degrees struggle to find jobs in their field, and in a city where housing prices have skyrocketed. Its other themes of friendship and love are timeless. I highly recommend snagging rush tickets for this unique show if you can. I guarantee you will not regret it.
Finally, a shout out to the creative minds who came up with and designed the La Boheme faux newspaper that serves as the show’s programme, complete with articles, a headline (“The Rent is Too Damn High”), and a classifieds section. Given Toronto’s current housing market situation, the subject is timely. I particularly loved the listed requirements for renting an apartment in Toronto these days: “landlords now demand 10 post-dated cheques, first and last month’s rent, a cleaning deposit, a repair deposit (your landlord isn’t going to fix that thing on their own), a reference letter from all former employers going back five years, dental records, access to social media accounts, and, in some cases, a urine sample.”
La Bohème plays until June 2, 2017 at the Tranzac Club. The show is sold out for the rest of its run, but rush tickets are available for $35 cash only at the door for each performance.
Photo of Kimy Mc Laren and Owen McCausland by Nikola Novak