By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Much has been written about Luhrmann’s attempt to bring opera to a theater audience and how the Broadway musical came to be perceived as opera’s poor cousin. Show Boatand Porgy and Besswere turning points in that divide — Broadway musicals that were reaching for opera’s grandeur. The musical went the way of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Las Vegas spectacle, except for those of the urbane, musically contrapuntal Stephen Sondheim, whose Sweeney Todd — a Broadway musical — is perpetually revived by opera companies, but almost never by theaters.
Luhrmann’s reach to a theater audience for an opera is interesting, but almost beside the point. What his La Bohèmeis really about is not so much the relationship between opera and theater as that between theater and the cinema. While Moulin Rougelooks like a play on film, La Bohèmelooks like a film onstage.
The production’s detractors call Luhrmann’s La Bohèmesuperficial. Well, maybe. But what it lacks in depth, it makes up for in cleverness and wonderment. Luhrmann gently insists that we watch this opera from multiple angles — camera angles. Before the production begins, technicians appear on the stage and test confetti-blowing “snow” machines. Later, when we see a street scene as thick snow trickles down, we remember how that snow is being produced backstage, a knowledge we willfully forget at the same time in order to enter the world of the artifice. This show could easily afford mechanically revolving sets; instead, it employs technicians who manually haul the set pieces in circles, so that angles keep shifting, and we don’t forget the people in the wings viewing from their own perspective. This is not just like some Thornton Wilder stage manager reminding us we’re in a theater. It’s actually in the service of a larger purpose.
Above a sink in one of the scenes stands a small three-panel mirror — an emblem of how Luhrmann wants to tell this story. Anybody who looks into that mirror will see a reflection from three contrary angles at once. When a three-dimensional marquee for the Café Momus is turned out of sight by the stagehands, a moment later it reappears in a painted backdrop. Even the jokes in the American Beat–era translations seek to divide focus — from the Italian sounds to the English writing, punctuated with bursts of humor.
Had Luhrmann used these devices to mock the original, his production would be superficial. But the story is on terra firma, while we jump through it, from angle to angle. It insists on concentration; it keeps us busy, on the move, staking out the confines of his enchantingly artificial world.
LA BOHÈME| Music by Giacomo Puccini | Libretto by Giuseppe Giascosa and Luigi Illica | Directed by Baz Luhrmann | At the Ahmanson Theater, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown | Through March 7 | (213) 628-2772 or www.TaperAhmanson.com