For four nights only, in Southam Hall at the National Arts Centre, Opera Lyra is presenting Giacomo Puccini’s opera, Le Bohème. Set in late 18th Century paris, and as the inspiration for many a contemporary work (most notably, Jonathon Larson’s Pullitzer Prize winning musical RENT), La Bohème is the story of great love and great tragedy. Should you see it?
I am the poet and she is poetry. Thus is how Rodolfo describes Mimi shortly after meeting and falling in love with her in Puccini’s La Bohème.
To start, I don’t think I’m qualified to talk about opera in a way that would be meaningful to frequent opera goers. Without research, I wouldn’t be able to name a single opera singer not in this show and I probably couldn’t tell the difference between a baritone and a tenor by sound. If you’re a frequenter of the opera and want an idea how Opera Lyra’s La Bohème stacked up, the best I’ve got for you are the comments I overheard on the way out from people who know more than I do — discussing how wonderful the performers were and how it was easy to see why Joshua Hopkins and Michael Fabiano (aka, the two guys) were named as singers to watch by Opera News earlier this year.
For the rest of you, those like me, who haven’t seen many (or any) opera previously and are on the fence wondering “Would I like opera?”, “Should I see this?”, here’s what you can expect from Opera Lyra’s La Bohème.
For those familiar with the hit Broadway musical Rent, the storyline for La Bohème is a barebones version of that. Rodolfo (Michael Fabiano), a poet, and Marcello (Joshua Hopkins), a painter, are bon vivants who live well below the poverty line in late 18th Century Paris. One fateful and cold winter evening, Mimi (Joyce El-Khoury) knocks on Rodolfo’s door to get a light for her candle and the two instantly fall in love. Four acts and two intermissions later, we’ve joined Rodolfo and Mimi, as well as Marcello and his sometimes-girlfriend Musetta (Laura Whalen) at several different points in the next year and have reached what is an absolutely tragic ending.
The entire opera is sung in Italian, making the first question: Can you understand what’s going on? Pretty easily, yes. One of the beautys of opera is a complete lack of subtext. Everything that’s happening is out there, on the surface, leaving you completely free to enjoy the singing and spectacle on stage. Even without the surtitles on display in both English and French, you’d be able to follow along and not miss much. I’m a bit detail-obsessed and couldn’t ignore the titles, which was annoying only for the fact that they were high off the top of the stage. Especially if you’re up close, you have to make a dramatic eyeline shift from the action to read them. The titles were themselves pretty basic (they’re intended only to fill in the major beats and give you the jokes and key lines of dialogue) so while this yo-yoing is a bit distracting at first, eventually you’ll fall into a rhythm that works since you only need to look up every now and again.
The singing and the live orchestra are among the biggest components in a successful opera and they were all wonderful. Particularly in the longer solo/duo bits like Rodolfo and Mimi’s first meeting and the goings on of the fourth act, you could really feel the emotion coming from these supremely talented performers. The big Momus café scene in act two, featuring the Opera Lyra chorus was itself something to witness. It was a grand spectacle of action and music and imagery including a unicycling juggler and one of my favourite things about the production – snowfall on stage. And all the sets here were pretty stunning.
If opera (or on stage-snowfall) has zero interest to you, you’re probably not even still reading this, but if you’re on the fence or at all curious, do it. It’s a great, entertaining show and a more than worthwhile excuse to dress up and enjoy an evening at the National Arts Centre. If you’re a Renthead, you should already have your tickets for a once in a lifetime opportunity to see the source material that it was heavily based off. I myself am tempted to see it a second time, this time ignoring the titles and completely absorbing what’s happening on stage.
What did you think? Will you be heading out to see La Bohème? Did act four and Mimi’s tragic end bring you to tears? Let me know in the comments below.
For more info about the show, check out our preview article. Remember, you’ve only got three chances left to see it before it’s gone.
(All photos taken by Production Ottawa photographer, David Pasho. See more on Facebook.)