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La Bohème

Also published in The Rover.

Stage design appears in the criminal code under “manslaughter – unusual,” which is a possible label for the season premiere of Opéra de Montréal’s La Bohème, a “lavish new production” that treats its talented cast with the thoughtfulness and dignity of a garden rake to the face, and succeeds largely in spite of itself. Only the singers and musicians deserve any applause.

The stage, a 1500sq-ft garret, is cluttered and empty, which takes a rare incompetence; simple acts become exaggerated and lovers yell to each other from the corners of a Great and Stupid Void. There is nothing to it, no aha moment when the imbecilic extravagance clicks and means something – except once when a wall of windows floats away and leaves the stage silhouetted against a suddenly naked and lovely colour. Your eyes relax and you wonder what the fuck was that wall for?

Nothing. It was a caprice like the rest of the set, a stain where the direction pissed and forced the artists to stand, a crime the more galling because it would be difficult to do such violence to a better or more pleasant cast.

Soprano Marianne Fiset is silken as the consumptive Mimi, her sound full and shapely and kind as a Madonna. Though she has weak chemistry with tenor Antoine Bélanger, a well-coloured but underwhelming Rodolfo, they both bloom in other company – like baritone Étienne Dupuis, who always adds a dash of vital energy and was an audience favourite as Marcello. He sings jauntily and gets on with soprano Lara Ciekiewicz, a standout of this season’s Gala and a crisp and cutting Musetta. Baritone Pierre Rancourt and bass-baritone Alexandre Sylvestre (who can dance!) beautifully round out an outstanding group, all Canadians with the exception of baritone Roy Del Valle (Alcindoro/Benoît). It’s rare that jingo casting works out, but when it does the feeling is pleasant.

Giuseppe Pietraroia conducted with precision and attention, maybe a little slowly, though it may have only felt slow while we waited for singers to arrive at their destinations. The turgid and poisonous effect of the staging can’t be stressed enough: in this year’s Opera McGill (budget & terrific) production of Bohème, the Café Momus scene was delightful; bustling but not chaotic, exciting and magical, it connected the principal characters to the Quartier Latin where they become parts of a larger theatre of the city. Saturday’s “professional” attempt was confused and boring, a wasted mass of choral talent that connected nobody to nothing, not even the designer to a fist.

Not that he acted alone. Director Alain Gauthier and his accomplice, designer Olivier Landreville (of MusiMax), have been court-ordered to attend theatre classes at Cegép du Vieux Montreal, an injustice to the students but a necessary measure of prevention. I hope it will be enough. Stephen Harper announced a bill to arm audiences, but he was booed out of the hall. (I’m joking, he thinks opera is, like, totally gay.)