Photo by Sue Adler
Boy gets girl, girl dies of consumption!
Let’s find a barn, four casts (for an opera running on a theater schedule), and put on a show! I’ll get Jeffrey Seller, Kevin McCollum, Emanuel Azenberg, Bob and Harvey Weinstein, Doyun Seal, J. Sine, I. Pittelman, S. Nederlander, Fox Searchlight Pictures, Korea Pictures and Bazmark Live to produce.
Also in this issue: Cozying Up With Baz Luhrmann
an interview by David Mermelstein
Twenty-six musicians (thin for opera) and 6.5 million dollars later, in his dazzling in-from-Broadway spectacle of La Bohème, now at the Ahmanson, director Baz Luhrmann has dared to go where Puccini and even Rent feared to tread: 1957 Left Bank Paris. Don’t quite know why, unless it’s to provide an excuse for the jazz-riff style of Luhrmann’s beguiling, simultaneously beamed English libretto (the opera is sung in Italian): “POW,” “THWACK,” “C’mon, baby” and “He’s back at his pad” flash over what one jaded London critic called the “confetti and Disney dust” of Luhrmann’s production. Baz says he’s trying to bring in the youth. He used the same line for his contempo-street-gritty movie Romeo + Juliet, but here it makes little sense, given how the youth that was growing up in 1957 is now approaching 60.
La Bohème follows in the romantic tradition of Romeo and Juliet by focusing on outsiders — in this case, struggling artists living for the moment (as we’re all told we must, and rarely do) — and impediments to their love. There are no warring families to keep leads Rodolfo and Mimì (David Miller and Kelly Kaduce) apart. Jealousy does the trick just fine, that and Rodolfo’s terror after watching Mimì hacking and losing weight. Being a kid, he flees. (Tony Kushner grabbed the same plot thread for Angels in America.)
Meanwhile, Rodolfo’s pal Marcello (Ben Davis) has a parallel fling going on with a local flirt, Musetta (the gorgeous Chlöe Wright), who torments him to the point of lunacy. Rodolfo and Mimì’s eventual reunion, as she’s fading, is really about growing up — the realization that, as threats to happiness go, our own neuroses and neighbors are trivial compared to the cruelties thrown at us by the gods.
Luhrmann’s not really going for an era but for a dream (it’s now legendary that his actors were chosen as much for being young and pretty as for their voices) — much like the dream of his film Moulin Rouge, with the same Paris-rooftop love scenes, the same city backdrop and night sky, the same strings of carnival lights and freak-show crowds. As Bohème’s femme fatale, Kaduce, who shows up in a white trench coat and ruby lipstick, appears striking, and strikingly like a reincarnation of Nicole Kidman’s Satine in Moulin Rouge. The movie was Luhrmann’s earlier take on La Bohème, set in Puccini’s era — the turn into the 20th century.
Catherine Martin and Angus Strathie’s beautiful costumes — redolent of film noir in hues of black and white, with splashes of amber, lavender and red — serve to blur the distinctions between the 1890s and the 1950s. Despite leather jackets, a Marlon Brando poster on a door, and Musetta, the production’s woman in red, arriving as though from a 1950s American high school prom, this is still Oz, with its warps of time and verisimilitude.
Why, for instance, would a group of impoverished chums, burning furniture and manuscripts for heat in a frozen garret, suddenly decide to go carousing in the icy streets? (This is a problem created by librettists Giuseppe Giascoda and Luigi Illica, not Luhrmann.) Why, with Mimì gasping her last breaths through the ravages of consumption, is she not spitting up blood? We’ve already seen Musetta’s red dress, so some red spittle really won’t clash with the production’s color scheme. Might it infringe upon the romance of Mimì’s untimely death? And what about getting her to a doctor rather than just waiting for one to show up? It’s 1957, and there’s no mention of a cab drivers’ strike. There are four burly fellows just standing around while she’s dying, for heaven’s sake. (These are problems created by Luhrmann, not Puccini.) And so on.
For all the Bazzle-dazzle of Martin’s production design, featuring Act 3’s ravishing, neon-lit street scene, perhaps what’s most surprising is how traditional the production is. Not a scene from the opera has been altered, not a note cut. Critics in London and New York have faulted the voices of this opening-night cast. Not true. Yes, they are miked, when in most operas they’d be required to land a high C in the upper balcony with their own lung power. Sometimes the vocal timbre of these actors is more airy than established ones, but that’s what happens when you go for performers playing in their age range. The gambit pays off. The acting has nuance and confidence, while Puccini’s music still sounds glorious.
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 Boat and Porgy and Bess were 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 Bohème is really about is not so much the relationship between opera and theater as that between theater and the cinema. While Moulin Rouge looks like a play on film, La Bohème looks like a film onstage.
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The production’s detractors call Luhrmann’s La Bohème superficial. 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