The Canadian Opera Company’s Opera For Toronto free community event underscores the wealth of operatic talent in Canada with Puccini’s La bohème.
Puccini: La bohème. Lauren Margison (Mimi), Andrew Haji (Rodolfo), Lauren Eberwein (Musetta), Samuel Chan (Marcello), Neil Craighead (Colline), Joel Allison (Schaunard), Doug MacNaughton (Benoit/Alcindoro), Taras Chmil (Parpignol), Jan Vaculik (Customs Officer), Gene Wu (House Sergeant). Canadian Opera Company Orchestra and Chorus, Paolo Carignani, conductor. Four Seasons Centre, May 8, 2019.
Confession time — I am a La bohème Junkie. In over fifty years of attending live opera, I have seen this Puccini warhorse more times than I could count. But I think I’ve outdone myself this time. This Ensemble performance last evening was my fifth this season! I was moved each and every time I see this piece, by the performers, and most of all by Puccini’s magic.
Last night’s performance was a special initiative called Opera For Toronto. It represents COC’s education and outreach efforts in the GTA. Tickets were given for free to various community organizations, to bring people to experience opera, many likely for the first time. The attendance was very good, with more than the usual number of young people — after all, they are the ones who hold the key to the future of this august art form.
For me, the primary interest was the Canadians in the cast, all of them I had heard previously. For several years, there was an annual mainstage Ensemble performance, but it ended a couple of seasons ago, probably due to financial constraints. It’s great to see the opportunity made available once again for young singers to tackle principal roles on the mainstage, an important step in their development.
Tenor Andrew Haji (Rodolfo) is a shining example of how a young artist program like the COC’s can play a vital role in a singer’s development. I’ve seen him as Nemorino, Alfredo, Tamino, and Cassio previously, and he’s singing better than ever. As Rodolfo, his bright, sweet, clarion tenor sounded gorgeous, his unaffected and sincere stage persona engaging. His is definitely a success story of the COC Ensemble Studio.
Equally remarkable was soprano Lauren Margison as Mimi. I first heard her some eight years ago in a concert at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre — as a folksinger! Now she is, like her father tenor Richard Margison, an opera singer. Possessing a beautiful lyric soprano with the ideal timbre for Mimi, her “Donde lieta usci…addio, senza rancor” was truly lovely. She also has volume to spare, and I predict more dramatic roles in her future.
Mezzo-turned-soprano Lauren Eberwein was a stylish Musetta, looking lovely and singing with power and flair in “Quando m’en vo.” As Marcello, Samuel Chan offered a naturally produced, warm baritone and vivid acting. As Schaunard, bass-baritone Joel Allison made the most of his moments in the sun, with rich, firm tone and strong stage presence. His is a voice to sit up and take notice.
The cast also included two “old-timers” — former Ensemble bass-baritone Neil Craighead returning to the COC as Colline, singing an affecting Coat Song — for once the audience didn’t sit on its collective hands and applauded. The other was baritone Doug MacNaughton, acting up a storm as Benoit/Alcindoro. He has had to shave off his long beard and cut his hair short for the two buffo characters — we’re glad he did!
The performance last evening underscores the wealth of talent right here in Canada; they are no longer “promising”, but have “arrived.” I look forward to hearing them again in the future, perhaps not in Bohème, given I’ve OD’d on this opera for a while. Uh…I think I may have spoken too soon. I do have one more coming up this summer, at the Santa Fe Opera Festival. Canadian soprano Kirsten MacKinnon is Musetta. As they say, Viva Puccini!