BWW Review: Calgary Opera Opens Their Season on a High Night with LA BOHÈME
From the moment the lights go down in the Southern Jubilee Auditorium, you as an audience are transported into 19th century Paris. A small apartment filled with destitute artists with dreams bigger than their bank accounts. Five acts, three fifteen-minute intermissions, and an aria or two later, the curtain falls and the audience is reeling from journey of love and ambition that was travelled together. This is Calgary Opera's La Bohème, directed by Calgary's own Brenna Corner. The opening of their 48th season was launched with this staple of opera that has an unrivaled cultural impact. From musicals like RENT and Moulin Rouge, and the continuation of the bohemian culture in modern minds, La Bohème is considered one of the most popular operas in the repertory. For a young artist who had never before attended the opera, this seemed like the perfect first show to attend.
As a lover of plays and musicals, I endeavored not to let my impression of opera cloud an evening of live theatre. I imagined five hour performances in a language I didn't understand, patrons in top hats and fur coats - and granted, there was some of that - but the performances, the storytelling, the long lines at the bar; they were just the same as any show I've seen at that theatre (which shares a home with Broadway Across Canada, Alberta Ballet, and many others).
Puccini's opera features many Canadian artists and also marks Artistic Director Bramwell Tovey's first full season since joining the company in January 2019. The stage was so filled with artists I'm amazed the raked stage didn't collapse as they jumped and danced around, decked out in costumes provided by Sarasota Opera Association. It was amazing to see over 70 local artists take the stage as chorus, supernumeraries, and other featured performers, including the six artists from around the country: Peter Barrett as Marcello, Antoine Belanger as Rodolfo, Neil Craighead and Colline, Peter McGillivray as Schaunard, Miriam Khalil as Mimì, and Joanna Latini as Musetta.
There is knowing that Jonathan Larson's musical RENT is based off of this opera, and then there is witnessing Marcello and Rodolfo burn a script for warmth, and laughing over Marcello and Musetta's on and off passionate relationship, and watching Mimi die of a mysterious illness. As a nervous musical-loving audience member, there was some ease in knowing where the plot is headed - and also in knowing that these people and their stories have endured through the centuries.
I am eternally grateful for any forehand knowledge I had of the goings on, as the subtitles appearing above the stage were of little help in navigating the plot. I do not speak Italian - though I was assured that you can feel the and understand what is being said through the emotion of the performer regardless of the language. However, subtitles were provided, and I was disappointed to find them out of sync or nonexistent at times. The Jubilee is a large theatre by Calgary standards, and over the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra (conducted by the incomparable Jonathan Brandi) it was amazing to hear such crisp and full sounds from some of the artists. I heard beautiful melodies but very few words, forcing me to depend on the unreliable subtitles, and the emotion of the sound for any context.
I believe songs should come from a place of pure emotion. When words are no longer enough, there is always music. With opera, it is always music so the people, the stories, their feelings must be heightened at all times; in extremes and yet so human. All while singing at extraordinary lengths. I do not imagine it is an easy feat. I expect a focus on a beautiful vocal performance, but I was also looking forward to more connection to the text than I received from some. Antoine Belanger and Miriam Khalil as the tragically destined lovers Rodolfo and Mimì left me wanting, whereas Peter Barrett and Joanna Latini playing the contrasting Marcello and Musetta gave a more dynamic performance as a fighting, passionate couple. Neil Craighead and Peter McGillivray as Colline and Schaunard rounded out the cast of men, a quartet of rabble-rousers and charming companions whose scenes left a smile on my face.
Vocally and emotionally, I missed some key moments from the performers, but I found myself carried away nonetheless with the beautiful music and the lively staging.
La Bohème is an enduring classic, and Calgary Opera has opened their season with an excellent piece for patrons who might not be as familiar with the long tradition of opera. I look forward to gaining more experience in the various arts around the city in order to fully appreciate their beauty.
La Bohème has performances on November 9th, 13th, and 15th 2019 and tickets can be purchased at calgaryopera.com.