La Boheme set in contemporary Toronto soars

English version of Puccini’s classic will entertain long-time opera fans and newcomers

LA BOHEME by Puccini (Against the Grain). At the Tranzac (292 Brunswick). Runs to June 2. $35. See listing.  Rating: NNNN

It’s hard to believe Against the Grain has only been around for six years. One of the most imaginative performing arts companies in the city, it has reinvigorated opera, oratorio and even lieder with entertaining, accessible productions, pleasing aficionados and embracing newcomers.

Now they’re remounting the show that launched them in 2011: a raucous, energetic, site-specific version of La Boheme, performed in an Annex club and featuring characters who are completely true to the spirit of Puccini’s original while also commenting on contemporary issues like soaring rents, hookup culture and millennial underemployment.

Adapted into English by director Joel Ivany, the opera is still about a bunch of artistic bohemians looking for love and work in the big city. But there are some twists.

Rodolfo (Owen McCausland) is a writer working on screenplays, not poems artist Marcello (Andrew Love) is obsessed with a woman at the Future (next door, as it turns out) and musician Schaunard (Micah Schroeder) is a busker.

For every niggling question someone familiar with Puccini’s original might ask – what disease does Rodolfo’s lover, Mimi (Kimy Mc Laren), have, if not consumption? Why does student Colline (Kenneth Kellogg) sing to his coat if he’s not going to sell it? – Ivany has provided fresh responses to other things, including staging the second scene at an actual bar and making sense of a plot point about a foot that has always seemed odd to me. (Kudos to Gregory Finney’s Alcindoro, one of his two pointed older portraits, for getting right into the nose-smashing spirit of things.)

Above all, Ivany and music director/pianist Topher Mokrzewski understand the heart of the piece: love, sacrifice, and getting by on little money is the same whether it’s in 19th century Paris or condo-ridden Toronto.

In a venue this intimate, you can’t get away with subpar singing or passionless acting, and this cast doesn’t disappoint. McCausland and Mc Laren invest their lovers with genuine poetic feeling Mc Laren’s voice is ravishing in its top notes.

Adanya Dunn is charismatic as the flirtatious Musetta, and Kellogg and Schroeder have lots of fun as the two roommates. It’s Love’s Marcello, however, who steals every scene he’s in besides having a booming, rich baritone, he’s alive to every dramatic possibility.

If you’re a long-time opera fan or new to it, don’t miss this Boheme. The acoustics and sightlines at the Tranzac might not always be the best, but you can’t argue with the entertaining and deeply moving results. And hey, you can probably share a pitcher with the cast afterwards.

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