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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Pictures of Baz Luhrmann's Broadway-ized La Bohème can't begin to do justice to this extravaganza. Houses with windows and balconies pre-empt the box seats to encircle the central set -- a major contribution to the success of the whole enterprise by Luhrmann's wife Catherine Martin who's also co-costume designer. Lest you don't fully appreciate the stagecraft involved, each act is preceded by and interrupted with a full view of the stage hands at work.
The scene of Left Bank Paris at the end of Act One is a stunning variation of Luhrmann's film musical, Moulin Rouge, but being live and with Puccini's glorious music, it's even more spectacular. Since, the $20 rush tickets in the first two rows excepted, Luhrmann's mission of making the opera accessible to younger, less opera-aware audiences doesn't include generally budget-friendly pricing, the producers could probably make considerable extra money letting another row's worth of viewers buy standing room tickets strictly for that scene.
Even at $95 a pop, La Bohème at the Broadway Theatre costs considerably less than La Boheme at the Met, and the venue is intimate by comparison to the opera house with its multiple balconies.The singers aren't famous (at least not yet), but neither are they too portly or old for the young passions they portray. Judging from the Mimi, Rodolfo, Musetta and Marcello I heard, and reports received from those who caught the alternating singers, Puccini's gorgeous arias are in good hands. These attractive young singers have beautiful voices and they can act.
While spectacle and opera have long gone together (real horses and elephants are not unusual at the Met) this production has the distinct gloss of a big film or mega-musical. Yet this is a bona fide rendition of one of the world's most beloved and lyrical operas. The libretto on the super title screens that are positioned at the top, sides and below stage so you hardly have to take your eyes off the performers is contemporary and at times, slang-y (Luhrmann has moved the action from the nineteenth to the mid twentieth century), but the singing is in the original language. Nor has any of the music been cut. This just happens to be one of the shorter works in the opera repertory (many operas last three and four hours, with some of the best arias coming at the end). What makes Luhrmann's La Bohème such an event is a combination of factors: a savvy and hard driving publicity campaign. . . a season with another genre-crossing musical hit making people receptive to newly packaged fine wine (e.g.: Movin' Out which has no dialogue and is basically a ballet more than a musical). . . using young, film-star good- looking performers. While other directors have updated old operas and nurtured younger and more physically appealing singers, the thing here is the scale and sleekness of the whole package. It's not just Mimi and Rodolfo and Musetta and Marcello who are young but the entire cast. There's also more than the look of what you see but the way you are given a glimpse of how it's all done, with a visible scene changing pause in each act that provides the excitement of watching the opera come to life.
Opera purists may bristle at the fact that there's electronic miking, but the Broadway Theatre wasn't built to be an opera house. The amplification for the singers is subtle enough not to spoil the purity of the sound. The same is true of the couple of synthethizers which give a rich, big sound to the smallish orchestra (small for an opera, but not a musical). As the idea of miking may make some Met subscribers resistant to Puccini-à-la-Lurhrmann, so might some of the snappier lines of translation. Yet, I've never heard an opera written in Italian or German or French that didn't sound wrong and like a foreign language when done in English. Even if some of the melding of the 1830s sensibility with that of 1957 demands a bit of a stretch, the libretto as neatly condensed for the excellent supertitles works well.
For all the Bohèmes I've seen over the years, my Mimi and Rodolfo (David Miller and Ekaterina Solovyava), were among the most emotionally touching. I don't recall ever seeing Rodolfo in the final tragic reunion, reveal that he's been wearing the lost key that figures in their first falling in love scene on a ribbon close to his heart. A fine get out your handkerchief directorial touch proving that Luhrmann is as in tune with small moments as well as the big picture. On the other hand, unless I'm off on my geography, the outskirts of Paris are nowhere near the Belgian border where in the third act Mimi seeks out Marcello to find out why Rodolfo is rejecting her. Why Belgium? Miller and Solovyeva's voices, as already noted, are beautiful. Ben Davis and Jessica Comeau as the more light-hearted second couple were equally satisfying, as were Daniel Webb, Daniel Okulitch and Adam Grupper as Colline, Schaunard and Benoit.
The real star of this or any La Bohème is, of course Giacomo Puccini. No composer has ever written a score so rich in succulent, hummable melodies, none of which ever have or ever will become dated.
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