Also see Sharon's review of Plane Crazy
It makes a certain amount of sense to put Baz Luhrmann's production of Puccini's La Bohème at the Ahmanson. After all, the Ahmanson is the house that brought Matthew Bourne's ballets to Los Angeles. Those ballets approached dance from a theatrical perspective, reaching an audience that was more Ahmanson than Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Now Luhrmann is trying to do the same thing with opera, bringing it across the plaza to an audience so unfamiliar with Puccini, the opening night crowd didn't know where the applause breaks were.
It is probably necessary to be something of an opera-goer to really appreciate the scope of what Luhrmann has accomplished. Casting young opera characters with young opera singers who actually look the part is apparently revolutionary. Having the singers convey the emotions of their characters not merely through vocal gymnastics but also through genuinely acting their roles is also something you don't see in opera everyday. Luhrmann's production does both of these things. It also moves the show into the relatively intimate setting of the Ahmanson, dresses it up in a gorgeous set, throws a spiffy new translation up on the supertitle machine, and invites the theatre-going public to see where all those lines in Rent came from.
The company is first-rate. David Miller, the opening night Rodolfo (up to four actors rotate through each principal role), has a lovely, passionate tenor that even this opera neophyte recognized as being of superior quality. Kelly Kaduce, his doomed lover Mimi, combines her soprano with a character of a sick woman barely concealed beneath a polished exterior. The entire company is convincing, although special mention should be made of Daniel Webb and Daniel Okulitch as buddies Colline and Schaunard, who really bring a playful quality to their first act shenanigans.
Catherine Martin's set is stunning, rolling off the stage and into the audience. There are lightbulbs that decorate the ceiling and mezzanine overhang to bring the audience into the spectacle that is the cafe scene of act two. Even more impressive are buildings projected onto walls near the stage which blend so perfectly with the actual set pieces, it is impossible to tell where the stage ends and the house begins. (Credit also goes to Nigel Levings's lighting design for this feat.) Martin, along with Angus Strathie, is also responsible for the production's glorious costumes. With the show moved to 1950s Paris, the men are decked out in long swirling coats and robes, while the attention-grabbing Musetta is in a red gown so fiery, it threatens to upstage actress Chlöe Wright, who can't quite compete with the intensity of her own dress.
The show's English translation is a wonder, never once feeling stilted or awkward. It also captures a great deal of the humor in the piece - you might not think you'd laugh at two lovers on the verge of breaking up, but there's silliness in their manufactured justifications for staying together, and this La Bohème isn't too snooty to let us laugh at its all-too-human characters.
But with all of that, this is still the genuine article, not watered-down "opera-lite." Luhrmann retained every note of Puccini's original score, and the show is sung in the original Italian by a principal cast whose credits are largely in opera, not musical theatre. Luhrmann is happy to meet a young audience halfway, with a theatrical rooftop love scene or a wild, party atmosphere - but this is still a real live Italian opera - and it still has that distancing element that comes from characters not expressing themselves in a language clearly understood by the audience. It is very likely as accessible as opera gets, but it might not be accessible enough for everyone.
La Bohème runs at the Ahmanson through March 7, 2004. For tickets and information, click www.taperahmanson.com.
Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre - Gordon Davidson, Artistic Direction/Producer; Charles Dillingham, Managing Director - presents Baz Luhrmann's Production of Puccini's La Boheme. Music by Giacomo Puccini; Libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa & Luigi Illica. Produced by special arrangement with the original Broadway Producers Jeffrey Seller, Kevin McCollum, Emanuel Azenberg and Bazmark Live, Bob and Harvey Weinstein, Korea Pictures/Doyun Seol, J. Sine/I. Pittelman/S. Nederlander and Fox Searchlight Pictures. Costume Design Catherine Martin and Angus Strathie; Lighting Design Nigel Levings; Sound Design Acme Sound Partners; Associate Scenic Design Prisque Salvi; Orchestrations Nicholas Kitsopoulos; Casting Bernard Telsey Casting; Associate Director David Crooks; Technical Supervision Brian Lynch; Production Stage Manager Kelly A. Martindale; Executive Producers Noel Staunton and Adam Silberman; Resident Director Heidi Miami Marshall; Movement Coordinator Mark Swanhart; Production Designed by Catherine Martin; Music Director & Principal Conductor Constantine Kitsopoulos; Directed by Baz Luhrmann.
Photo by Sue Adler