La Boheme Is Big And Bold
Also see Richard's review of The Shape of Things
I don’t know how many times I have seen Puccini’s La Boheme - I first saw this opera as a teenager. I must have seen it over the years at least a dozen times in all parts of the western world. I have seen good and bad productions of this romantic piece. For several years, the San Francisco Opera did a summer series called “Opera on Broadway,” during which they did a Broadway version of the opera with a young cast. It was very successful. In the middle of the 1990s I saw the PBS version of Baz Luhrmann’s take on Puccini’s opera by the Australian Opera Company and I thought it was fantastic. It has taken over 7 years to reach our shores but it is well worth the wait.
Trying to discuss La Boheme is almost an impossible task. It is spectacle at its greatest, it is emotionally conscientious, and its visuals are striking, especially the second scene of the first act, the Montmartre scene. As Steven Winn of the Chronicle said, “It is simply sensational.” That tells it all.
Baz’s La Boheme captures the dreamy tale's youthful, high spirited and reckless aspects with great bravado. It sports a young and talented cast that act and look like they are real Bohemians in their 20s. The director has reset the saga of Rodolfo and Mimi to 1957 Paris. It follows almost note for note the Puccini score, though Baz has taken some liberties with the Giacosa and Illica libretto, with references to Marlon Brando and jazz cats. One character sings in Italian using the word “man” at the beginning of each sentence. The libretto is still in Italian but it is easy to follow since the production has large English subtitles at the top of the stage and in some scenes at eye level, at the base of the Bohemians' loft set. There is no reason to go into the plot of this old warhorse of an opera; suffice it to say it is about the tragic love affair of Rodolfo and Mimi and the antics of Rodolfo’s friends.
I saw the opening night of the White cast (the three lead teams are “color coded”). Alfred Boe makes a wonderful, youthful Rodolfo and he has a lovely tenor voice to match. He makes an appealing, and eventually touching, impression. Mimi is played by the beautiful Wei Huang. Her voice is exquisite and she convinces the audience that she is a penniless waif who has major health problems. Her arias with Rodolfo are sincere and passionate.
Jessica Comeau sings and superbly acts Musetta. She plays the tart to the hilt, and her bell clear voice is brittle in phrasing as well as disposition. Her “Musetta's Waltz” is marvelously sung. Eugene Brancoveanu is solid as Marcello. Their scenes together are sexy and red hot. Also convincing are Rodolfo’s fun-loving friend Colline, played by Daniel Okulitch.
The 26-piece orchestra under the direction of Constantine Kitsopoulos delivers a sweet sound.
The sets for this production of are fantastic. Many are Brechtian in nature, and the director has come up with a revolutionary presentation. There is a lot of scenery and, with no curtain, you are able to see the stagehands put each of the scenes together with incredible military precision. To watch the Parisian loft scene disappear into the opulent Christmas Eve scene in the Montmartre is a sight to behold. You see in semi-darkness the stagehands moving the heavy sets and you see the extras (about 30) all in various Parisian costumes milling about and getting into their proper places. It is like seeing a Hollywood film set being positioned for the big scene. Suddenly the lights on the stage come on and, voila, there is Montmartre in all of its glory.
In the Christmas Even scene, you see every kind of Parisian walking around the square. There are parading hookers, gendarmes, roller skating children, a toy seller, a “little person” - all acting wonderfully. On the upper right of the stage is the outside café where the leads sing and act. You even experience the sexual heat that starts between Musetta and Marcello in all of this activity. It would take three sittings to observe all that happens on that stage in the second act. It is one of the greatest scenes that I have watched on any stage in this wide world of ours.
The set in the first scene of the second act is the direct opposite of the flashy Christmas Eve scene. You see the despondent French-Belgian border set (this is a radical change from the regular opera, since that set is supposed to be the gates of Paris in the 19th Century and just how Paris got so near the Belgian border in 1957 is anyone’s guess) and the set reflects Rodolfo and Mimi’s fated reunion and Musetta and Marcello’s snarling and sexy quarrel. All of this comes off with the breathtaking ensemble number. The tragic ending in the second scene of the second act is realistically played. I have seen singers go completely overboard in hysterics and dramatics during that final number. However, Luhrmann, by keeping in the spirit of the production, keeps that scene toned down. It is in keeping with the whole production.
All things said, this is an opera for the masses. Baz has brought a Hollywood sensibility very skillfully to what could have been a heavy form of drama. This is reinventing opera for the 21st Century on a grand scale.
La Boheme runs through November 10 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St, San Francisco, Ca. Tickets are $40-$90 and can be obtained by calling 415-512-7770 or visiting www.bestofbroadway-sf.com. Boheme moves to Broadway in November.