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Theatre Reviews John Caird’s La Bohème is satisfying and organic, both onstage and in the orchestra pit

The curtain on John Caird’s production of La Bohème opens on an apartment that looks like it’s inhabited by four young creative types: the quiet writer-type (Rodolfo), the gregarious painter (Marcello), the scene-stealing musician (Schaunard) and the overthinking philosopher (Colline).

Michael Cooper/Handout

It’s more difficult than you might think to articulate why John Caird’s production of La Bohème is so satisfying. The curtain opens on an apartment that looks like it’s inhabited by four young creative types – complete with their charming sort of squalor – and we are dropped into an earthy world. The bohemians introduce themselves organically, offering glimpses of their craft that colour their personalities: There’s the quiet writer-type (Rodolfo), the gregarious painter (Marcello), the scene-stealing musician (Schaunard) and the overthinking philosopher (Colline). Also in the artsy gang are two women: Musetta, who lives practically in order to surround herself with beauty, and Mimi, who faces her difficult life with a stillness and much gratitude.

Of course, these are not Caird’s ideas; they’re the characters created by Henri Murger in his Scènes de la Vie de Bohème, and by Giacomo Puccini in the musical personalities he writes for them in his omnipresent operatic adaptation. Caird’s Bohème is about supporting the story without imposition; his work is utterly ego-free.

Caird achieves the delicate balance that so many directors are after, where he leaves his mark onstage and still allows the piece itself to breathe. The sets by David Farley are all dominated by artwork, paintings inspired by another Parisian bohemian, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec; the sets themselves become a generous nod to our painter onstage, Marcello.

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And still, as the eye takes in the broad world of Caird’s La Bohème, the paintings do not overwhelm. Rather, they become the uneven city line in the Latin Quarter, or the odd angles of the cluttered garret apartment. The details of Farley’s design are there for our admiration, like an added member of the ensemble of characters that share and exchange moments of spotlight.

In any good production of La Bohème, you’re sure to miss something. If I were to go see it again – and I just might – I would surely notice new interactions between characters. This time around, I caught the warm first meeting between Musetta and Mimi at Café Momus, and the soul-stirring look on Rodolfo’s face as he hears Mimi speak of her love for springtime. A detailed stage speaks of thoughtful direction, and in the case of La Bohème – an opera where nothing “happens” except the ambling of human relationships – these details add up to enormous emotional stakes in the final acts.

And the singing – what singing. Baritone Lucas Meachem (Marcello) bellows the first words of the opera, booming and reedy and utterly friendly. Tall, strapping and with a comforting air of Marshall from How I Met Your Mother, Meachem brings beautiful life to what can easily be a perfunctory character. He’s answered by an understated Atalla Ayan (Rodolfo), warm and easy and with slight hints of shyness. More of a Jon Snow-sort, Ayan’s Rodolfo is one we root for, an absolute necessity for Act IV, when the tragedy becomes his to bear.

The men find perfect partners in Andriana Chuchman (Musetta) and Angel Blue (Mimì). Chuchman’s voice, clear and constantly beautiful, seems to keep her Musetta on the side of classy, never drifting into the world of annoying or, most dangerously, unlikeable. And Blue, with her megawatt smile and warm, stretchy soprano, creates a chemistry with Rodolfo that feels real – complete with an awkward first meeting over candles and keys. The job self-conscious body language eventually gives way to real chemistry between Blue and Ayan, and it feels very intimate to watch.

This Bohème has an organic ease, both onstage and in the orchestra pit under Paolo Carignani, whose combination of driven tempo and roomy musical moments is steeped in Italian tradition, à la Arturo Toscanini.

All the pieces are in place with this Bohème, and I suspect that includes all the details I didn’t catch the first time around. The stage is busy, the music is as it should be and the extended run includes three performances with a second cast; two Canadian singers of particular note are Miriam Khalil as Mimì, and Danika Lorèn as Musetta.

At the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts until May 22.

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