Half a Hankie for COC Bohème

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Half a Hankie for COC Bohème
by Joseph So / April 10, 2000
This season marks the 50th anniversary of the COC and the company chose La Bohème, one of the three operas produced in its inaugural season, as the centerpiece for its festivities. On opening night, all the principals in its first season were invited to attend and an announcement was made in the theatre honouring these artists, followed by a lavish post-performance reception. Among those in attendance were Mary Morrison (Mimi), June Kowalchuk-Eggleton (Gilda), Joan Hall (Maddalena), Jan Rubes (Colline). Nicholas Goldschmidt, (conductor) and George Crum, (chorusmaster). La Bohème is an opera for young voices and as such a perfect showcase for these early pioneers, all of them with healthy, youthful voices at the beginning of their careers.
Joseph Calleja (Rodolfo), Eszter Sumegi (Mimi)
Photographer : Michael CooperFifty years later, the ensemble of principals gathered is very much in keeping with that tradition. Top vocal honour goes hands down to Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja. All of twenty-two years old and not even three full years into a professional career, Calleja possesses an exceptionally beautiful lyric tenor that recalls a young Pavarotti, with a splendid Italianate timbre and an easy, sympathetic stage presence. Despite inexperience and a few technical problems in his approach to the high register, Calleja is without doubt a major talent. With proper guidance and seasoning, his will be a voice to be reckoned with.
The rest of the cast acquitted themselves honorably without rising to an equally exalted level. The Mimi of Eszter Sumegi produces a big sound with a nice sheen and she looks lovely on stage, but the voice is more suited to the more dramatic roles such as Tosca, Jenufa, or Katya Kabanova. Her Mimi is far too robust vocally and visually, without the requisite floated high notes and delicate mezza voce that this role demands. Dmitriev, a successful Miller and Count di Luna in seasons back, returns as a refined and musical Marcello. Scottish soprano Rosalind Sutherland almost steals the show as an unusually colourful and effective Musetta. COC ensemble bass Alain Coulombe makes the most of his one moment to shine in the coat aria. Alfredo Daza in his company debut completes the group of bohemians. The evergreen Cornelis Opthof continues to be a valuable member of the company as Benoit/Alcindoro.
The naturalistic sets and costumes, while not lavish, are perfectly acceptable. However, the lack of a revolving platform necessitates three intermissions, something of a rarity for the COC. The single major blemish of this revival is the stage direction. Puccini wrote much of the action into the music, but time and again, these musical cues are ignored. This is particularly noticeable in Acts 1 and 4 – there is no attempt to coordinate the tearing of the manuscript for the fire, nor the sprinkling of water on the face of the fainted heroine with what is written in the score. Rodolfo takes hold of Mimi seconds before the startled ‘oh’ from Sumegi, as if it is an afterthought. The sublime orchestral interlude right after Colline’s aria and the exit of the bohemians is tailor-made for stage direction designed to tug at the heartstrings, but it went for nothing. This is really too bad, as overall the musical values are high and the end product should have been better. Richard Bradshaw, a last minute replacement for the scheduled Silvio Varviso who withdrew due to the death of his wife, conducts fluently, but his brisk tempo proves a struggle for some of the singers trying to play catch up. Overall, an enjoyable evening but rated only half a hankie for the even the most tearfully-proned.
Puccini: La Bohème
Canadian Opera Company
Hummingbird Centre, Toronto
April 6th (opening night) and April 8th 2000
Mimi Eszter Sumegi
Rodolfo Joseph Calleja
Marcello Evenij Dmitriev
Musetta Rosalind Sutherland
Schaunard Alfredo Daza
Colline Alain Coulombe
Parpignol John Kriter
Alcindoro/Benoit Cornelis Opthof
Sergeant Bruce Schaef
Conductor Richard Bradshaw

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About Author

Joseph K. So is Professor Emeritus at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, but his first love is music, which he studied as an undergraduate student at the State University of New York. Since seeing his first live opera – La Gioconda with Renata Tebaldi at the Met in 1967, the singing voice became his lifelong favourite instrument. In addition to his longtime contributions to La Scena Musicale and The Music Scene, he is Associate Editor of Opera Canada and a frequent contributor to Musical Toronto.

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