Concert Reviewby Philip Anson
/ November 1, 1998
Puccini : La Bohème
Imperial Theatre. St. John, New Brunswick
Opera New Brunswick’s three-year
struggle to stage Puccini’s La Bohème bore fruit on Oct. 2 before an
enthusiastic sold-out audience in St. John’s acoustically splendid, gorgeously
restored Imperial Theatre.
Puccini’s perennially popular tale of young love between
struggling artists in nineteenth-century Paris was a wise choice for Opera New
Brunswick’s first fully staged production with orchestra and chorus. La Bohème's music
is accessible, and the story is self-explanatory (though English and French surtitles were
an additional help).
It seems like the whole country lent a hand to mount this show. The
sturdy, tastefully realistic sets were built by Theatre New Brunswick in Fredericton, then
shipped free by a local trucking company. Musicians, singers and audiences drove in from
Fredericton and Moncton. Costumes came from the Stratford Festival and Halifax’s
Neptune Theatre. Surtitles were rented from Montreal. Thanks to so much volunteer work,
this production cost $100,000, about one-tenth of new productions at the Canadian Opera
Company and the Opéra de Montréal. Luckily, the McCains and the Irvings opened their
wallets to pay the bill.
Opera New Brunswick’s laudable mandate is to give local talent
a forum, and the cast was virtually all New Brunswick-born. As the tubercular heroine
Mimi, soprano Monette Gould was completely convincing, especially in her moving death
scene. The pathos of her playing made up for a few missed high notes. As Mimi’s lover
Rodolfo, tenor Stuart Howe deployed a bright, well-controlled voice with good technique
and a pleasant natural timbre. Further training should mellow his nasal high notes and
make him a valuable property.
Rodolfo’s three friends were all excellent actors, especially
red-headed Bruno Cormier (Marcello) and Pierre McGraw (Schaunard). Baritone Cormier has a
big rich but undisciplined voice. Bass-baritone David Mitchell gave us a moment of
unadulterated pleasure in Colline’s coat aria "Vecchia zimarra, senti."
Soprano Cindy Townsend completed the professional singing cast as a hyper but winning
The direction, by Mount Allison University drama professor Mark
Blagrave, was the best I have seen in years, far better than the wooden posing and static
crowding that pass for direction in Canada’s major opera houses. The complex crowd
scenes at the Cafe Momus, the delicate love scenes and the all-important deathbed scene
evolved naturally, with full emotional impact. Blagrave was helped by a cast of singers
who were unusually good actors.
British Columbia-based conductor Michael Gormley led a 26-member
pick up band assembled from Symphony New Brunswick and freelancers. Gormley pulled the
cast and orchestra together nicely. Unfortunately, the strings played seriously off pitch
all night, and the brass section was insecure. On the other hand, the amateur chorus,
especially the children’s chorus, was first-rate. -Philip Anson