The third in Edmonton Opera’s series of on-line videos ‘Opera Meets Film’

review by Sarah El-Ezaby

Classical voice and the opera have been a large part of my life since I was fourteen and started competing in music festivals. Singing could have taken me to university, but the threat of an unstable career deterred me from pursuing that passion. I’ve left behind my musical training days for now, in favour of being an audience member and living vicariously through the powerful voices on stage. 

I recently stumbled upon Edmonton Opera’s “Opera 101” series on YouTube and saw that episode number three was comparing the opera La Bohème, to Moonstruck, an ‘opera film’ based on Puccini’s tragedy. Peaking my interest, I watched the twelve-minute talk show where soprano Cara McLeod and pianist Leanne Regehr spoke on the two productions. Tenor Andrea Pinna joined the two hosts as a special guest and the three ended the segment with a performance of the canonical duet “O soave fanciulla” from La Bohème

La Bohème is a perennial production in many opera houses because of its beauty and affective nature to newcomers and long-time opera goers alike. Based on the novel Scènes de la vie de bohème by Henri Murger (1851), La Bohème follows the lives of four male artists, ‘bohemians,’ living together in a cold and cramped apartment, struggling to make ends meet. Rodolfo, one of the four, meets Mimi, another starving artist, on Christmas Eve and the two consumed with love at first sight, profess their love for each other in the duet “O soave fanciulla.”

This takes place in the first act, and the opera is very joyous until we discover in the third act that Mimi’s been diagnosed with tuberculosis and doesn’t have very long to live. Too poor to pay for medicine, Mimi’s sickness looms like a threat over the couple. Rodolfo and Mimi agree to stay with each other through the winter, but separate by the fourth act. 

In the fourth act, Mimi’s illness has progressed, and she’s been living on the streets, no longer well enough to make a living. , Musetta, a mutual friend, finds Mimi exposed to the elements and freezing to death, and brings her to see Rodolfo before she dies.

At the bohemians’ apartment, the group sell their most precious possessions in order to bring a doctor to save her life. But before the doctor can make it, Mimi falls asleep and slips away peacefully. As everyone but Rodolfo realizes she is dead, the room quietens. Marcello, Rodolfo’s best friend, tells him to “be brave” and Rodolfo, realizing Mimi has slipped away from him, cries her name out twice, creating one of the most iconic lines in opera history. The curtain closes. 

Moonstruck (1987) is an ‘opera film’ that maintains the essence of La Bohème while changing the plot substantially. Cher, as Loretta, is a middle-aged woman who falls in love with her fiancé’s brother, Ronny, all too quickly. Although she isn’t young and wild, like the lovers in La Bohme, her larger than life feelings for Ronny relate to Pucinni’s portrayals of young love. Separated by her engagement to Johnny, Loretta tries her best – like Mimi – to avoid Ronny, but their connection surpasses rationale.

Puccini’s music plays throughout the film like a soundtrack to their lives, as Ronny, a devoted La Bohème fan, plays it in various scenes. The movie meets its climax when Loretta and Ronny attend the Met’s annual La Bohème production and their love soars to new heights through the characters on stage.

In EO’s Opera 101 video Regehr and McLeod make connections between Pucinni’s opera and Norman Jewison’s movie, but they move past the basic context of either production very quickly. Because of the segment’s title, I assumed the talk-show was geared towards newcomers to opera, but in truth I think this video would be very difficult to follow for a newcomer as it stands.

I hadn’t seen Moonstruck before watching this episode, and McLeod’s explanation of the film went by all too quickly. Especially because the film’s plot is substantially different than the opera, I think more time should have been devoted to explaining the film, as the names are hard to keep track of on first listen. Audience members definitely need the context of La Bohème to understand the episode, because the hosts lightly touch on the opera, but discuss more of the atmospheric qualities of it. 

Because this series is geared towards newcomers, I do wish the structure of the episode was more organized. The train of thought seemed to shift across the two hosts, and it was only after I took notes on the episode that I saw how they were trying to connect ideas, or how seemingly unrelated topics were semi-relevant to the discussion.

On the tangent of opera film, the hosts brought up The Upside, another opera film, where an Aretha Franklin’s lover is introduced to opera. This brought up an anecdote about Franklin performing in poor Italian and pop-esque style “Nessun dorma” at the Grammy’s in place of Pavorotti.  I think the hosts meant to show another moment on the intersection of classical and pop music as a way to relate to opera film, but the relevancy felt lacking.

This opera lives large in my mind, and so when I saw the Edmonton Opera’s small performance of “O soave fancuilla” I was taken aback. The lovers Cara McLeod (as Mimi) and Andrea Pinna (as Rodolfo) sing, masked and socially distanced on stage, while Leanne Regehr accompanies them on piano. Despite Regehr and McLeod’s celebrity, I couldn’t help but find myself missing the “big art” of it all. 

La Bohème isn’t a grand opera compared to, say, Turandot, but the emotions are larger than life, and they draw me in every time. The swells are glorious, the climaxes feel epic, and the gentle strings create sorrow. The anticipation in the music creates tension in my chest and removes it  with a resolving phrase. I think music in La Bohème mimics its portrayal of love: larger than life, all-consuming, and tragic. In La Bohème, and in Moonstruck, falling in love feels like getting everything you have ever waited for.

Given the pandemic, a small ensemble, never mind an orchestra, is impossible to accompany the lovers, Mimi and Rodolfo. But without it, I wasn’t feeling the dreamlike entrance that makes you breathe in and sigh, or the sudden growing excitement under the tenor with the strings, or the orchestra’s sforzando-piano before Rondolfo sings his climactic “sognar.” Ideally I would have heard these things replicated in Regehr’s accompaniment, but I didn’t and this left me sorely disappointed. La Bohème‘s majesty is in the music creating the intense and passionate feelings I described earlier, and I wasn’t feeling any of that here.

Maybe the rapport between the three was bad, but overall the piano could have used a broader range of dynamics in order to mimic the absent orchestra. In terms of McLeod, I think she did the best she could, as it can be very difficult to move the music with dynamics or rubato when people aren’t moving with you. Unfortunately though, because the range of dynamics in La Bohème reflects the range of emotions, I didn’t feel this duet. 

The masks interfere with the singer’s facial expressions, and watching their body language more closely, I can see McLeod and Pinna’s attempts to communicate through socially distanced movement. But the arm gestures they’re making do not replace the visual of two people falling in love.

I wonder if it would have been better to make this series as a podcast, considering the COVID restrictions take away from the visual aspects of the performance. If they were to record this series as a podcast, the performers could record simultaneously, listening to one another, but in separate spaces, unmasked. This would greatly improve the technical sound quality which was a big disappointment, because in both the duet and the talk show portion there was distortion largely on Regehr’s end.

McLeod sounds like a strong lyric soprano, and rings very free, clear, metallic, and warm throughout the whole piece. Her trills are like a chocolate fountain, gliding smoothly despite her larger voice. Having a larger voice myself, it can feel hard to navigate runs which require agility and precision. Larger voices, coloraturas aside, tend to grow in their ‘colour’ or richness as the musical line goes on. This is why long legato phrases are ideal, and McLeod’s warm trills are notable. 

Pinna is a touch tense, so there are a few pinched notes that detract from the liberating quality, but this may be due to the size of his voice, which is also large. When I was singing, I often came across the same issue because it can be hard to bring the full depth of a large voice from a lower register to a higher pitch.

Unfortunately, once a note is pinched it can be hard to resolve it and bring in the colour and freedom. Being ‘pinched’ refers to tension which prevents the sound from ringing clearly. Notably the long sustained lines suit his timbre, as the colour of his voice becomes richer in the longer phrases before an ending held note.

Overall, I don’t think their voices are the best suited for each other, because they don’t ring distinctly from one another, preferring to muddle together. But given this was a performance intended for newcomers to opera, I’m not sure it matters as much.

Overall, I think this segment would do much better as a podcast, considering that there isn’t anything I would miss from the visual aspects. Everyone is masked, the body language is distant, and the technical sound quality suffers because of the masks. The one place I see visuals helping would be in the talk show portion with a PowerPoint presentation, considering the information was very dense.

Because I love this opera I was really interested in the episode, but I was genuinely disappointed and worried that newcomers would be left feeling uninspired about the opera, which couldn’t be farther from the truth about La Boheme. To grasp this episode, you need both working knowledge of the opera and the film, which is just not practical for new opera lovers. 

Associated videos: