by Suzanne Vanstone
Whether you are an opera neophyte or a seasoned aficionado, chances are you have experienced La Bohème’s beautiful music and heart-wrenching tale in some fashion – be it with a full production, excerpted highlights, or perhaps that aria on the radio that you can’t quite name, but know intimately. A repertoire staple since the company’s inaugural season in 1950, the COC is thrilled to bring a brand new Bohème to its stage under the direction of Tony-award winning director John Caird.
Caird very much enjoyed working at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts when he was last here to direct Don Carlos in 2007. “The building has a light, airy feeling, both in the public foyer spaces and in the hall itself. The space is not pretentious but rather incorporates a real sense of community. It was a great pleasure to work there and I look forward to my return with La Bohème.”
In creating this new co-production with Houston and San Francisco, Caird and set and costume designer David Farley have taken inspiration from France’s Belle Époque, capturing the romance and artistic brilliance at the heart of this opera.
La Bohème is based on Scènes de la vie de bohème, a play by Henri Murger and Théodore Barrière, as well as a novel by Murger of the same name. But as Caird says, “In reality, the original works were neither a novel nor a play, but rather vignettes, glimpses into the lives of the bohemian lifestyle in Paris’s Latin Quarter.” Murger vividly captured the Bohemians’ unconventional attitude towards freedom, pleasure and love, as well as their complete commitment to art, but he also reminded his readers of the harsh realities of their lives.
At La Bohème’s core is the sad story of Mimì, an ailing seamstress and her lover Rodolfo. But Caird ingeniously uses the four young artists: Marcello, a painter; Rodolfo, a poet; Schaunard, a musician; Colline, a philosopher; to propel the story, each employing their particular talent. “All four young men possess wit and talent but they aren't as good at their relationships as they are at their art. Rodolfo knows he must lose Mimì and Marcello runs hot and cold with Musetta, but by the end of the story we know that both men will move on and certainly love again.”
“Rather than relationships, their art is what is paramount to them – art is their true passion. No matter what is happening around them, Rodolfo pauses to write down a line of verse; Marcello feverishly paints and sketches. Like all good artists, they don't want a moment to slip by without, in some way, recording it.”
Caird has set this production a bit later in the 19th century, inspired by what was happening in Paris at the time. “We drew great inspiration from the great painter Toulouse-Lautrec who was capturing all aspects of street life, feeding the desire for the wealthy classes to peer into the seamier side of life.” The set design revolves around a mosaic of canvases, painted by Marcello, that frame the action within the opera’s changing Parisian locales. Some paintings remain fixed, some turn in place to create scene changes, and others fly in to enhance the artistic effect.
Puccini’s ability to create compelling characters and express larger-than-life emotions through unforgettable melodies is what makes La Bohème a perpetual favourite of audiences. “A great opera like Bohème is a beautifully crafted construction of melodies and musical dialogue – and Puccini’s craftsmanship is quite astonishing. As always, it will be an unalloyed pleasure to share a rehearsal room with his music. Having said that, my own work is only ever as good as the cast I am working with, and from whom I draw my own inspiration. In this respect I am being doubly rewarded - with two superb casts, both brimming over with youthful energy and enthusiasm.”
This article is published in our La Bohème house program. Click here to read the original article online.
Photos: (top) (l-r) Dimitri Pittas as Rodolfo, Grazia Doronzio as Mimì, Joyce El-Khoury as Musetta and Joshua Hopkins as Marcello in the Canadian Opera Company production of La Bohème, 2013. Photo by Michael Cooper. (middle) John Caird; (middle) Eric Margiore as Rodolfo and Joyce El-Khoury as Mimì in the Canadian Opera Company production of La Bohème, 2013. Photo by Chris Hutcheson; (bottom) A scene from the Canadian Opera Company production of La Bohème, 2013. Photo by Michael Cooper.
Posted by Danielle D'Ornellas / in La Bohème / comments (0) / permalink
Following his deserved ovations in the COC’s Tristan und Isolde last season, celebrated tenor Ben Heppner returns to portray one of the most iconic roles in 20th-century opera – Peter Grimes. Benjamin Britten’s masterful composition of a tormented fisherman shunned by an unforgiving society is a favourite of Heppner’s, and he’s performed the role worldwide in over 40 performances in seven productions. In fact, as soon as the curtain comes down in Toronto in October, he is off to do it again in Vienna.
The role is a complex one to perform, balancing Grimes’s often raging persona with a softer, wounded man who, because of the death of his young apprentice, is forced to defend himself against those who have already decided his guilt. Heppner says, “If you try to soften him too much, he can appear whiny. You have to have the confidence to be disliked. Grimes is not a likeable character in many ways. From the beginning he comes across as being self-righteous, railing, ‘No. I want to explain myself in court. Don’t leave me to be judged by the court of public opinion,’ yet the whole time he is judged by the court of public opinion.”
Heppner says it takes courage at the outset of the opera to be your own man and not care what others think – particularly in the dramatic scenes in the pub and then in the hut. “In the pub, Grimes seems to be in some other space. He loves the brewing storm, while others think he is mad or drunk. Then in the hut scene, although he is rough and tumble with the boy, you suddenly realize how tender he is. He loves this boy and really wants to care for him. Somehow they have a mutual affection that works. And so at the end of the opera, when the curtain comes down, there is often silence from the audience. People are stunned. I think they are trying to figure out why they care about this man; perhaps they were wrong about him. I think it’s genius – you don’t have to be the most beloved character on stage to have that extraordinary effect on people.”
Heppner says the score has a feeling of film music and when he describes it to friends who don’t attend opera a lot and might have qualms about contemporary music, he reassures them that the music is very accessible. “It’s very descriptive, has some beautiful melodies and the music fits the action. It’s like Wagner contemporized – not such a heavy orchestration, but the colours Britten gets in the orchestra are amazing. This is really visceral writing – it just seems to grab you right in your heart and hold onto you.”
One of Heppner’s favourite moments is in the church scene when Grimes confronts Ellen Orford, a schoolmistress who is one of the few villagers sympathetic to his plight. “She is there to protect the boy and has some sort of relationship with Grimes, the nature of which, even after 40 performances, I am still unsure. It seems to have romantic elements, but I created a backstory for myself that perhaps she taught him how to read and he is very appreciative of that. The scene is filled with enflamed passions – on both sides. She approaches him very tenderly ‘Peter, tell me one thing…’ and he snaps, ‘Take away your hand. The argument is finished. Friendship lost. Gossip is shouting everything. To hell with your ambitions. God have mercy upon you.’ It’s a swirling microcosm of his various moods.
“I think Ellen sees something in him that she doesn’t see in the other men, something that really attracts her. She sees his interest in the outside world, and there are only three characters who have any vision of that – Captain Balstrode, Ellen and Grimes. If I use my own backstory of Ellen having helped him read, she has perhaps suggested things for him to study, so he has a connection with the outside world. Balstrode is a world-travelled sea captain and Ellen has actually, if not travelled, travelled through her books. They are the only people who have an outside perspective. Everybody else is locked into their society and their little town.”
In portraying that insular town, director Neil Armfield sets the piece in a rehearsal hall, similar perhaps to Britten’s own Jubilee Hall in Aldeburgh. Armfield says, “The music paints pictures not only of the sea and the land around The Borough, but also the spaces that separate people, and in those spaces we feel fear and mistrust, anger and love, hope and despair. I saw my job in this production as allowing the world that Britten creates so vividly in the music to play freely in the audience’s imagination, and I was at pains to ensure the experience of watching and listening to Peter Grimes not be blurred by too literal a representation of this world in the actual images created on stage. In a sense all of my productions in theatre have been about trying to share with an audience the experience of play that goes on in the rehearsal room before opening – to render that experience in a not entirely finished form, so that the minds of the audience are all engaged in finishing it together.”
Ben concurs. “I think Neil’s staging improves our understanding of the opera. I’ve done Peter Grimes both ways – with boats and nets, etc., and I’ve also performed it with very little on stage. The thing that this kind of approach does for the audience is unbelievable. It gets rid of all that other stuff and focuses in on the relationships between all the characters. That’s what it’s about. It’s an amazingly well written piece of drama. There is a real self-examination that occurs when you watch this opera and that is the best kind of theatre – it makes you think, it involves you, you’re caught up in it. That’s why people need to come to this – it’s such a great experience.”
This article is published in our Peter Grimes house program. Click here to read the original article online
Photos: (top) Ben Heppner as Peter Grimes in the Canadian Opera Company production of Peter Grimes, 2013. Photo by Michael Cooper; (middle) Ben Heppner. Photo by Kristin Hoebermann; (bottom) Ben Heppner as Peter Grimes in the Canadian Opera Company production of Peter Grimes, 2013. Photo by Michael Cooper.
Posted by Danielle D'Ornellas / in Peter Grimes / comments (0) / permalink
By Suzanne Vanstone
Beloved Bohème. No matter how many times one experiences this iconic work, the extraordinary pull of Puccini’s music continues to draw us in. With 15 COC mainstage productions and numerous mini-Bohèmes on tour and in recital, outdoors and in, the company is once again proud to present this cherished opera in a brand new production.
Set and costume designer David Farley visited the COC this past summer to explore the theatre space firsthand. “I had only seen the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in drawings or photos so it was great to be able to walk the room and get an idea of sightlines, the quirks of the building, and things to watch out for as we approach load-in.” He also met with various staff in the COC’s production department to discuss sets, costumes, props, wigs and make-up. He wanted to give them insight into how the production works, potentially tricky things to watch out for and, above all, to get everyone excited and invested in the project.
La Bohème is often staged in the 1850s which is when Henri Murger’s literary work Scènes de la vie de bohème was written. But after some initial conversations, director John Caird and Farley agreed that while they still wanted a period piece, they preferred the 1890s – when the actual opera was written. “It is a prettier era costume-wise with much nicer silhouettes, and there was a much more vibrant arts scene in Paris at that time.” As Farley further researched artists living and working in Paris, he wanted to find the “real-life Marcellos” and quickly came to the conclusion that famed painter Toulouse-Lautrec fit the bill. “Toulouse-Lautrec was the one who was hanging around street corners sketching every last detail of real life – he has a wonderful energy to his work and would literally paint on any surface. There are acres of sketches and studies that he did – not very detailed, but they have a wonderful movement and life to them. They reflect the feel of the music in the opera which is so lush and vibrant.”
It is a natural fit for Marcello to represent the Parisian artists who frequent the cafés and sketch life as it swirls around them. Caird and Farley also posited that perhaps Marcello had been recording the lives of his capricious group of friends in his notebook. And perhaps we, the audience, are looking back and seeing this story through his eyes. Farley says, “We go from the garret, the artist’s studio, where we see Marcello’s sketches and canvases lying around, to the café and the street world that could then literally be created through the canvases that he has painted. With a few flown-in pieces the canvases form a collage, a vista of a street.” Art imitating life… imitating art.
In terms of the costumes, Farley said it was tricky finding references to everyday people and not just the fashion prints of the very high class as recorded in portraits. He wanted to know what people truly wore. In the course of his research he stumbled across work by photographer Eugène Atget from the early 1900s. Atget, obsessed by the changes that were happening in Paris through industrialization, wanted to record everything, taking hundreds of photos of the bread sellers, the sweet makers, the urchin kids on the street corner, the shop fronts – beautiful, detailed images of people in everyday wear. Using these photographs as his guide, Farley was able to create costumes of great diversity. Members of the chorus have their own individual looks and tell their own individual stories.
La Bohème is a co-production with Houston Grand Opera and San Francisco Opera, and was first mounted in October 2012 in Houston. Having the chance to remount a production is a gift for a designer. “We always knew it was coming to Toronto and to this specific theatre, so we were able to keep that in mind in terms of sightlines and size of stage, etc. But it is wonderful to be able to revisit a show. No matter how well designed a piece is, there is always something that, once you see it on stage, you wish you had done a little bit differently – but there is just not time nor finances to go back and tweak it at that stage. We have so much of this Bohème working beautifully and we know that it has a good solid base, but to finesse those last few things and make them really right – it’s great.
“The Four Seasons Centre itself is a beautiful space and it’s a real treat to go into a purpose-built, new building. To see a modern performing space that has been designed so well and with such integrity is wonderful. The attention to detail is quite impressive and I am really looking forward to our show ‘sitting’ here and spending more time in this building.
“Bohème is one of those pieces that is so well loved and enjoyed; it just ticks all the boxes. Falling in love, out of love, camaraderie, foolery, slapstick – Puccini runs the gamut and crams a little bit of everything in. You really can’t go wrong!”
Photos from the Canadian Opera Company production of La Bohème, 2013: (top) Dimitri Pittas as Rodolfo and Grazia Doronzio as Mimì. Photo by Michael Cooper; (middle) David Farley; (front, wearing green coat) Cameron McPhail as Schaunard and (front right, wearing grey suit) Tom Corbeil as Colline. Photo: Chris Hutcheson; (bottom) Photo by Chris Hutcheson.
Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001