All through the 19th century, opera was show business. In his Broadway production of Puccini's "La Boheme," which opened last night, Baz Luhrmann restores it to those roots. He has given back to the story of impoverished Parisian artists and writers its youthfulness, its humor and its playfulness, all of which bring a new power to its soaring melodies. In the opera house nowadays, directors confronted with singers whose girth and self-obsession render any attempts at drama absurd come up with some concept - "Die Meistersinger" in Tin Pan Alley - which means the audience has to guess what the director means rather than simply enjoy the opera. With Luhrmann, no cerebration is necessary. His ideas make the work fresh and direct. He and his wife Catherine Martin, who designed the production, have set it in Paris in the '50s. The architecture of the Left Bank has barely changed from the 1840s, when the action originally took place, except for the gray neon signs that seem distinctively Parisian. These bohemians have on their wall a symbol of the winds of change, a poster of Marlon Brando in "The Wild One."
The painter Marcello uses a spray gun, the writer Rodolfo a portable typewriter. Little else requires updating. The opera is performed in Italian, with zippy English translations on screens at various points on the set. It's great to hear the audience laugh as Rodolfo throws pages of his play into the furnace to keep warm with the same gusto heard at "Hairspray" around the corner. I saw two of the three casts that alternate in the four leading roles. Everyone looks credible and sings with skill and ardor. As Mimi, Lisa Hopkins is a splendid singing actress. Nothing, even her tubercular coughing, is forced, which makes her deeply compelling. She is matched perfectly by Jesus Garcia, a sensitive but virile, vocally touching Rodolfo. Ben Davis is a hearty, affecting Marcello. Chloe Wright has the brashness of Musetta, but her singing is sometimes coarse. The night before, Ekaterina Solovyeva was Mimi. Her voice has a Slavic thickness, but she sings well. Her Rodolfo, David Miller, sings smoothly but callowly. Eugene Brancoveanu was a solid Marcello, Jessica Comeau a delightful Musetta. At all performances, Daniel Okulitch does Schaunard elegantly. Similarly, Daniel Webb is a moving Colline, especially in the aria to his overcoat. The second act, conveying the bustle of Left Bank Paris, is stunningly theatrical, full of wit. (As if to remind us this is the work of the director of "Moulin Rouge," there's even a midget.) Puccini's lush orchestrations have been intelligently reduced for a Broadway pit, and Constantine Kitsopoulos conducts the score with invigorating energy. Ultimately, the star of "La Boheme" is Puccini. I guarantee you'll go out humming the tunes.
Opera on Broadway? Italian Opera? I mean classic Opera in Italian? Is someone crazy around here? Not exactly.Giacomo Puccini's "La Boheme," given the full Broadway treatment by Australian wunderkind director Baz Luhrmann and his remarkable designer Catherine Martin, opened at the Broadway Theatre last night and looks and sounds like a hit.
Young people in love in the cafes, attics and streets of Paris in the 1950s - Luhrmann makes Puccini's updated 1896 opera swoon into vivid and vivacious life.
The doomed love story of the consumptive seamstress Mimi and her headstrong poet lover Rodolfo jumps out of the opera in a way it rarely does in the opera house. Some of this immediacy is in the casting - young and very personable singers who can all act - but a lot is in Luhrmann's fluid, cinema-influenced treatment of the story.
The sets by Martin are chiefly based on nostalgically resonant blow-ups of black and white photos (think Brassai), although here and there they are splashed by a flash of color, such as the illuminated red sign spelling out L'amour (think "Moulin Rouge") outside Rodolfo's attic.
Yet throughout, color is used quite sparingly except in Nigel Levings' beautifully atmospheric lighting and the costumes, designed by Angus Strathie and Martin herself.
The total result is a very special and very appealing style somewhere between romance and chic, that actually is new on Broadway.
Luhrmann's "Boheme" is sung in the original Italian, although the English sub-titles have been markedly modernized so that, for example, the phrase "Briccone! Seduttore!" - literally "Rascal! Seducer!" - is liberally translated as "You, Marlon Brando! The Wild One!"
All of Luhrmann's three varying casts are young, good-looking and above all credible, fitting right into Luhrmann's imaginatively realistic concept.
There were three Rodolfos and three Mimis: Alfred Boe was matched with Wei Huang, Jesus Garcia with Lisa Hopkins and David Miller with Ekaterina Solovyeva. As far as singing went, the two best were Boe and Solovyeva, both of whom should have secure operatic careers.
But all six were really good, promising singers and all acted most persuasively. The same could be said of the two Marcellos and Musettas, Eugene Brancovich and Ben Davis, and Jessica Comeau and Chloe Wright.
The opera is given uncut, but by omitting two of the three customary intermissions it runs only 2 hours, 15 minutes, shorter than most Broadway musicals.
So treat it as a musical. It's got virtually the same story as "Rent," but without a cop-out ending, and with infinitely better music. Anyone for a Verdi "Aida" on Broadway?!
Suddenly, there's color in a gray, gray world.
To experience the opening moments of Baz Luhrmann's rapturous reimaging of "La Bohème," Puccini's classic opera of love in a garret, is to feel a bit like Judy Garland's Dorothy when she stepped out of her drab Kansas farmhouse and into the land of Oz.
For what first meets the eye from the exposed stage of the Broadway Theater, where "La Bohème" opened last night like a cascade of fireworks, is a cool industrial still life of machinery draped in sheets. The palette is of muted blacks and whites, a cheerless echo of the sooty, snowy streets of Manhattan outside.
Even when that big contraption at center stage is uncovered and shifted, by a team of black-clad stagehands, to reveal the shabby rooftop digs where the first act takes place, things still look pretty bleak, with chilly, nouvelle vague lighting that brings to mind those midwinter moments when life feels like a black-and-white movie.
And then, timed to coincide with the enlivening first strains of Puccini's score, there is that first streak of red, splashed onto a blank canvas. One of the garret's residents is fending off the shivers by making art. A poet burns his manuscript in a stove. A flamelike glow creeps into the scene that matches the youthful energy of the men onstage. All at once winter doesn't seem cold anymore.
Mr. Luhrmann's "Bohème," which transports Puccini's 19th-century Parisians to 1957, turns out to be both the coolest and the warmest show in town, an enchanted mixture of self-conscious artistry and emotional richness. Opera purists should know that this production is no slice of wise-guy revisionism.
The show is far more respectful of its sentimental operatic essence than many of the lugubrious, experimental productions of old war horses at the Met. (Think "Lucia di Lammermoor" or "Il Trovatore.") What Mr. Luhrmann and his extraordinary production designer (and wife), Catherine Martin, have done is find the visual equivalent of the sensual beauty and vigor of the score.
The stars of this "Bohème" may be as pretty as Calvin Klein models photographed by Avedon. But not to worry. Their voices, for the most part, match their faces.
With the films "Strictly Ballroom," "Romeo and Juliet" and "Moulin Rouge," Mr. Luhrmann and Ms. Martin brought an exultant, defiantly stagey sense of theatricality to the cinema. With "La Bohème" they have reversed the equation, bringing to the theater a cinematic flow.
This is evident from that initial introduction of brightness into the grisaille of the first scene, reminiscent of the melting from black-and-white into color in "Moulin Rouge." And throughout this production Nigel Levings's ravishingly shaded lighting sets off the performers' features in ways more common to movie studios than Broadway stages.
Watch the apotheosizing play of shadow on the face of the fragile heroine when she sings "Sì, mi chiamano Mimi." After that, how could Rodolfo, the poet who has sworn off love, not fall for her? What's more, within that scene the loft moves, changing your point of view as effectively as a camera.
Don't think that this "Bohème" makes the mistake, as recent Broadway productions have been known to do, of treating live theater as a poor cousin to film. Mr. Luhrmann translates cinematic effects with expressly theatrical tools. And he consistently calls attention to the mechanics of doing so.
In the first act, stagehands at the edge of the raised garret set are very much visible, holding lamps to simulate the ripple of firelight. The elaborate scene changes are achieved in full view of the audience. Such proceedings generate no sense of detachment. Instead they make you feel doubly engaged, as if you are part of the process. When the audience, having observed the Left Bank streetscape of the second act come together by degrees, bursts into applause at the stunning completed effect, there's an element of self-congratulation for being in on the creation of that illusion.
Mr. Luhrmann, who first staged "Bohème" at the Sydney opera house 12 years ago, knows very well that young theatergoers today will have been weaned not only on MTV, but also on videos about the making of the videos. And that for them, knowing the conjurer's tricks doesn't diminish the magic of the finished product.
If I seem to be scanting the human element in "La Bohème," I don't mean to. The principals are, to a person, sexy, vital, utterly committed to the moment. They never betray any awareness of the artificiality of their environment. I have never seen an opera in which movement seems so spontaneous or so particular to each individual. And every member in the crowd scenes emerges as a distinct presence.
This spirit of individuality becomes especially apparent if you have the good fortune, as I did, to see all three of the rotating Rodolfos and Mimis. (Marcello and Musetta, the lustier secondary lovers, are portrayed by two sets of singers. The rest of the cast remains the same for all performances.)
Compare, for example, the end of Act III, when Mimi and Rodolfo discover that breaking up is hard to do. With Alfred Boe and Wei Huang in the roles, the scene ends on a note of elation as, reconciled, they frolic in the snow.
Jesús Garcia and Lisa Hopkins are affectingly somber in the same moment, with resigned postures that suggest a haunted awareness of doom. Some of the same sensibility pervades David Miller and Ekaterina Solovyeva's interpretation, but there's a seize-the-day physicality in their kiss that makes it the sexiest variation. Don't ask me to choose among these versions. They all brought tears to my eyes.
If Mr. Boe and Ms. Solovyeva turn in the richest vocal performances, that's not to say that the others don't create complete, engagingly sung portraits. Whichever "Bohème" you attend, you are unlikely to feel shortchanged. All the Mimis, for the record, die exquisitely.
In contrast to the rarefied love of Mimi and Rodolfo is the earthier relationship of Marcello, the painter, and Musetta, the cocotte. They are represented with wonderfully spirited eroticism by Eugene Brancoveanu and Jessica Comeau, on the one hand, and Ben Davis and Chloë Wright, on the other. "Musetta's Waltz" in the second act, in which she flirts her way through a crowd of men, is an unqualified dazzler, a heady confluence of song, image and character.
First of all, there's that red dress (Ms. Martin and Angus Strathie did the inspired costumes), a Dior-like concoction that automatically turns coquetry into exhibitionism. Both the chic Ms. Comeau, who might have stepped from a Penn fashion photo, and Ms. Wright, a more voluptuously Marilyn-like creature, have voices that are the aural equivalent of that dress.
Mr. Luhrmann composes Musetta and her throng of admirers, who range from a sailor to a delighted little boy, into teasing patterns that create the liveliest, raciest and most artful crowd scene on Broadway. By the number's end you know Musetta intimately, from her whopping vanity to her generous heart. And this emerges in the midst of a parade of street vendors, cross-dressers, prostitutes, urchins, gendarmes and photographers.
Nearly as enjoyable is the bawdy, exuberant horseplay among Rodolfo, Marcello and their pals, Colline (Daniel Webb) and Schaunard (Daniel Okulitch). Again, almost before you know it, a four-sided friendship and its pecking order have been defined.
And those quintessentially romantic scenes — including the famous moment with the lost key and the death scene tableau — are rendered with careful simplicity. Mr. Luhrmann doesn't fall prey to the urge to keep his audience diverted with visual business. It's the score that takes over here, and Constantine Kitsopoulos, the show's musical director and principal conductor, makes the supple, sensitive orchestra sound like an extension of thought.
There's so much to talk about: the wit of even the typography of the supertitles; the free-handed translation of the libretto that, while incorporating allusions to Marlon Brando and Rolls-Royces, still hews exactly to the spirit of the original; the subliminal visual references that summon the pictures of Cartier-Bresson and the films of Truffaut and Godard.
Then there's that rooftop sign, which spells out "L'amour" and which has appeared, in some version, in all of Mr. Luhrmann's movies. It is next to this sign that Rodolfo bursts into his heart-stopping paen to Mimi, "O soave fanciulla." It is also here that Rodolfo and Marcello sing vehemently and wistfully of the pains of love in the opening of the final act.
Semioticians, of course, can have a field day with Mr. Luhrmann's use of signs, if they choose, just as deconstructionists can wallow in the production's artistic self-awareness. Mr. Luhrmann, however, may incorporate these academic strains from the late 20th century, but he has moved well beyond them, into a sphere where real feeling drowns ironic contemplation.
Those big red letters don't objectify love or reduce it to a commercial slogan. On the contrary, they evoke that brief, swirling period in young adulthood in which everything in life seems to be writ large. That's what Mr. Luhrmann's "Bohème," with its heightened but gloriously familiar reality, celebrates from start to finish.
First, forget everything you think you know, or don't know, about opera.
In developing his new Broadway adaptation of La Bohèmé, Baz Luhrmann — the Australian director and multimedia conceptualist behind such films as Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet — was clearly less interested in appeasing purists than in reaching out to people who might otherwise be scared off by the genre.
Luhrmann even had the gall to cast hot-looking, twentysomething classical singers who would be physically convincing as Puccini's young lovers rather than more established artists — and, in a big break with operatic tradition, to provide his upstarts with vocal amplification. And the maestro of hip has moved the opera's setting from the 1840s to 1957 Paris, depicted with fabulous style by Luhrmann's wife, scenic and costume designer Catherine Martin, and her sartorial collaborator Angus Strathie.
But what's most distinctive and endearing about this Bohèmé, whose opening Sunday at the Broadway Theatre was the season's most eagerly awaited, isn't necessarily its brash populism. It's the humble, affectionate reverence with which Luhrmann tackles this classic account of love and loss.
Anyone expecting the dizzying pace and purposefully avant-garde layering that has distinguished Luhrmann's recent film work may be surprised by the uncluttered warmth and simplicity of this production. Not that the director has forsaken his clever, playful bent. The English subtitles that accompany the opera, which is sung entirely in its original Italian, inject '50s-hipster jargon and make witty references to bebop jazz and Marlon Brando.
But the essence of Mimi and Rodolfo's tragic love story, and the rich environment in which it unfolds, is never lost or undercut by winking modern flourishes. As Luhrmann points out in his notes for the playbill, French bohemian life in the 1950s was as steeped in culture and romance as it had been more than a century beforehand; and Martin's sumptuous sets convey the sometimes seedy splendor and defiant joie de vivre that typified the lives of young, beautiful and struggling Parisians.
The first and final acts take place in and around a garret that seems at once spartan and seductively intimate, while the second act plays out against the lush backdrop of Left Bank nightlife. Shortly before intermission, a gorgeously over-the-top parade erupts in a celebratory frenzy, showering the audience with strips of colored tissue paper.
More sober moments follow, of course, and the singers ably illustrate the youthful longing and heartache that the characters endure. Those well schooled in opera's technical aspects may find fault with these still-developing vocalists, who appear in rotation so that three performers alternate the roles of Mimi and Rodolfo, and two take turns as Rodolfo's friend Marcello and the coquettish Musetta.
Even to my less-than-expert ears, the Musetta I caught, Chloe Wright, could sound shrill and seemed a bit sharp at times. But Wei Huang's Mimi revealed a brightly lovely lyric soprano that blended well with the tangy, potent tenor of Alfred Boe's Rodolfo.
I wouldn't dare to guess what Puccini might have made of Luhrmann's Bohèmé from a musical standpoint. But my bet is the composer would have been greatly touched by its spirit.
Baz Luhrmann's utterly enchanting Broadway production of "La Boheme" is just the thing to take the sting out of the winter chill. This unabashedly exuberant but intricately wrought staging of Puccini's masterpiece adds a cinematic immediacy to the emotional intensity that only opera can afford. It succeeds spectacularly in its ultimate goal -- to put the pop back in opera -- and a lusty critical reception might just help turn a century-old operatic warhorse into Broadway's next hot ticket.
Last year, the enterprising Aussie put the box office bounce back in the movie musical with "Moulin Rouge," and this foray into opera offers further proof of his genius at re-animating entertainment genres popularly thought to be past their prime. In the process, Luhrmann is bringing the pleasures of the art form to people whose acquaintance with it may not extend beyond a long-ago schoolday trek to the nearest opera house for what may have felt like endless hours of caterwauling in an unknown tongue.
For such audiences, at which this eminently accessible production is squarely aimed, Luhrmann's "La Boheme" will be a revelation. For veteran operagoers, the pleasures may be more mixed: The reduced size of the orchestra undeniably blunts the impact of musical climaxes, and the young and uniformly attractive singers in the central roles have voices of variable size and sophistication (three casts alternate in the show's Broadway-standard eight performances a week). But there is a special pleasure in seeing the opera in a theater that's small by opera-house standards, and even aficionados will delight in the giddy inventions of the stagecraft on display here.
The production has been gorgeously designed by Luhrmann's close collaborator Catherine Martin (also his wife) and lit with endless artistry by Nigel Levings. It constantly flickers with theatrical life. The sets, representing a storybook black-and-white Paris as seen through the lens of Robert Doisneau or Brassai, are themselves often in motion, lending freedom to the staging and an extra jolt of energy to the narrative. The opera unfolds with the fluidity of a crisply edited movie.
Stagehands remain onstage to effect scene changes -- spinning the platform on which Rodolfo's humble garret sits so he and Mimi can confess their love in front of a massive electric sign outside the window advertising "L'Amour," the opera's central theme, with cheeky, disarming bluntness. They hold orange pin spots to simulate the flickering of a fire in the grate, or scatter snowflakes in front of a fan whenever one of the scrappy youngsters breezes in or out of the garret.
The effect is anything but distracting: Luhrmann has the gift, rare in any genre, of pointing up the artifice in art without detracting from its emotional impact. Indeed, the visibility of the stagecraft here serves to underscore the immediacy of the experience, to remind us the thrill of great theater is that it is not mass-produced: Like love and loss, it takes place in a particular time and place, to particular human beings. Its joys are as fleeting as all others, and all the more precious for that.
The loves and losses depicted in "La Boheme" derive from the on-again, off-again romances of poet Rodolfo and the seamstress Mimi, she of tiny-frozen-hand fame, as well as Rodolfo's painter pal Marcello and the flirtatious Musetta, a handle forever associated with that infectious waltz. In that soaring duet, Mimi and Rodolfo pledge their love within minutes of meeting each other, and here, too, the design lends gentle truth to this surprisingly quick development by presenting the garret as a small boat floating in isolation among the Paris rooftops, an intimate bateau-mouche built for two.
They descend to share their rapture with Rodolfo's rowdy gang of bohemians at the Cafe Momus, and Martin and Luhrmann effect a terrific coup de theatre when this street scene, teeming with comic business, blazes into life as a riot of white and red neon signs flash on in an instant. Luhrmann is not, as anyone who has seen his movies knows, a graduate of the less-is-more school of aesthetics. Here and in some of the rambunctious comic interplay among Rodolfo and Marcello and their boho pals Schaunard and Colline, he pushes things extravagantly near excess.
With the entire stage, and the lavishly decorated boxes in the auditorium, too, full to bursting with comical Parisian types -- Carmelite nuns, sailors, cops, prostitutes for every taste, even a dwarf -- Zeffirellian overkill is just around the corner. But Luhrmann's skill with actors apparently extends to drawing out vivid turns in even the smallest roles -- everyone onstage seems to have an authentic purpose for being there, however small, with the result that the ebullience feels natural, not manufactured. And he knows how to scale down when needed: The third-act duet in which Mimi and Rodolfo threaten to part and then reaffirm their love is staged with utter simplicity, drifting snow the only accompaniment to their tender give-and-take.
Theatrical exuberance is just one of the devices Luhrmann has used to ensure audiences are never put at a distance by listening to a foreign language (the opera is sung in the original Italian). The story has been updated to 1957, so that the visual vocabulary needs no translation. The costumes and hairstyles have a familiar chic: The leather coats and jackets sported by the boys, and the Dioresque dresses Musetta uses for flouncing, might have been taken off the rack at an upscale vintage store in Soho. The lyric translations that can be read on as many as four screens surrounding the stage are looser even than the free-spirited Musetta: They're dotted with goofy period argot, so that Schaunard talks of a "rich old English cat" who wants "a lesson in 'bebop,' you dig?" Stuffed with jokes both witty and corny, they are goosed by the use of a variety of typefaces, too.
Yes, the effect can be distracting, and those smug operagoers who get outraged when audiences at the Met laugh in time with the supertitles, and not when the line in question is actually sung, will be apoplectic. But let 'em clutch the pearls: The benefits of an adaptation that speaks to us in a voice we like to hear outweigh any losses in strict accuracy. Literal translations would be more hindrance than help to Luhrmann's populist goal: Who would fall in love with a guy whose pickup line is, "Your tiny hand is frozen"?
More disappointing is the small size of the orchestra, which sounds distinctly anemic when it is left alone to punch up a climax or introduce a scene with a powerful burst of music. For those used to hearing the score in an opera house, the weakened sound cannot help but detract from the emotional impact of the tragic finale, for instance.
But by way of compensation, there is the unquestionable dramatic vibrancy that results from singers being given an ample rehearsal period as well as a long run to work their way into the heart of their characters. Luhrmann's performers largely -- and blessedly -- avoid the generic gestures opera singers often employ to make an impact in a cavernous opera house. In the relative intimacy of a Broadway theater, subtle effects -- the play of emotion on Mimi's face when she overhears Rodolfo speaking of her illness, the stricken stillness that presides in the garret when Mimi succumbs -- can be deeply affecting.
With three Mimis and three Rodolfos, and a pair each of Musettas and Marcellos, some performances inevitably will be more affecting than others, or more musically accomplished, but virtually all the fresh-faced performers here are fine actors and respectable singers. David Miller, a promising American tenor, and Ekaterina Solovyeva, a Russian soprano with an impressive, rich tone, made for an ardent pairing, with Solovyeva particularly touching in her last moments. Jesus Garcia, who uses his finely focused tenor with delicacy, and Lisa Hopkins, whose lyric soprano has a willowy quality just right for this gentle soul, pleased me with their gentle rapport. Alfred Boe and Wei Huang were a bit less affecting at the performance I caught.
Among the supporting casts, baritone Eugene Brancoveanu was a wonderfully lusty and touching Marcello, Jessica Comeau the more musically accomplished Musetta. Both Daniel Okulitch and Daniel Webb are superb as the high-spirited Schaunard and Colline, respectively, whizzing around the garret like battery-powered bohemian action figures, singing with vigor and charm. The subduing of their jubilance when a desperate Mimi arrives in the final scene adds to the painful poignance of the opera's last moments.
Giacomo Puccini, by the way, deserves a bit of credit, too, as do his librettists, Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica. "La Boheme" is a virtually perfect opera, dramatically taut where others are pocked with longueurs; populated by appealing human characters, not off-the-rack operatic types; rich in glorious, uncomplicated music that magically translates the joys and tribulations of youth into sound. The opera has found a perfect mate in Baz Luhrmann, an artist who seems destined for an enduring career ranging across who-knows-how-many forms of media, but one who, I suspect, will forever remain a starry-eyed youth at heart.