By Louise Phillips
If you wear mascara, make it waterproof. Vancouver Opera’s latest La Bohème, at Queen Elizabeth Theatre (to Oct. 28), is a terrific tear-jerker. Opening the season with Puccini’s beloved work is a box-office no-brainer for Vancouver Opera, but it’s always a challenge for the cast to re-invent characters and make the audience forget the big-name singers who have immortalized them: Callas and Pavarotti, for starters.
No international headliners in this almost all-Canadian cast, but strong work from the principals and ensemble, directed with an eye to detail by UBC’s Nancy Hermiston. Tenor Jason Slayden is a compelling, romantic Rodolfo, and Marianne Fiset brings a bell-like lyric soprano to the consumptive Mimi. Small in stature, Fiset has enormous stage presence and (ironically) robust lungpower.
Puccini introduces the four young Bohemians with a rambunctious opening salvo. Rodolfo writes, Marcello (energetic baritone Etienne Dupuis) paints, Schaunard (baritone Aaron Durand) is a musician and Colline (Stephen Hegedus) a philosopher. They are starving cheerfully in a Paris garret when Mimi comes in with her unlit candle. “Your little hand is cold,” sings an infatuated Rodolfo; Mimi faints from hunger and illness, and we know from the music as well that tragedy looms.
Meanwhile, mezzo Krisztina Szabó as Marcello’s mistress Musetta, the brassy good-time girl with a heart of gold, sparkles in the Café Momus scene. It’s no mean feat on a stage packed with a large chorus of townsfolk, soldiers and small children in a giddy, gaudy pantomime of Christmas Eve festivities.
There’s weepy fun before the final, satisfying sob-fest. Conductor Leslie Dala mines the score’s emotional heart, and the conversational-yet-melodic duets for the two pairs of lovers merit a pocket full of hankies.