LaBoheme Baz Luhrmann's production of Puccini's La Boheme. Music by Giacomo Puccini. Libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica. Directed by Baz Luhrmann. Music Direction and Principal Conductor Constantine Kitsopoulos. Production Designed by Catherine Martin. Costume design by Catherine Martin, Angust Strathie. Lighting desigin by Nigel Levings. Sound design by Acme Sound Partners. Associate scenic design by Prisque Salvi. Orcehstrations by Nicholas Kitsopoulos. Music coordinator John Miller. Associate director David Crooks. Technical supervisor Brain Lynch. Production stage manager Frank Hartenstein. Cast: Alfred Boe, Eugene Brancoveanu, Jessica Comeau, Ben Davis, Jesus Garcia, Adam Grupper, Lisa Hopkins, Wei Huang, David Miller, Daniel Okulitch, Ekaterina Solovyeva, Daniel Webb, Chloe Wright, William Youmans.
If Baz Luhrmann understands one thing, it's style. His three well known film efforts - Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, and Moulin Rouge! - are bursting at the seams with it. Their frenetic storytelling and unapologetic use of film editing techniques have made them among the most distinct film offerings of the last decade or so.
But how does Luhrmann fare as a stage director? Devotees of both theatre and opera can see for themselves with the premiere of Luhrmann's production of one of Giacomo Puccini's most celebrated and performed operas, La Boheme, which just opened at the Broadway Theatre. Luhrmann's inescapably imaginative vision is contained in every set, every motion, every sung word, yet something is missing. This passionate love story lacks nothing Luhrmann could have given, yet doesn't possess all it needs.
Luhrmann has reset the opera from 1830s Paris to 1957 Paris, changing the color of the original setting without dampening it. There's still the starving poet Rodolfo in love with the tuberculosis-stricken Mimi (looking more than a little like Nicole Kidman's Satine from Moulin Rouge!), and Rodolfo's painter friend Marcello (now apparently obsessed with modern art) and his on-again-off-again girlfriend Musetta. As conceived by Luhrmann, these are highly sexual, modern young men and women, at once of another time and the present - their struggles with love, loss, and death can (and do) happen to anyone.
Luhrmann's devotion to them is admirable, but his production lacks the stratospheric grandeur necessary to make their everyday problems of paramount importance to us. The closest his production gets is the opera's second act, set on the left bank's Café Momus, providing a playfully celebratory crowd scene as brimming with more life and energy than you're likely to find in other Broadway theaters today. But that act is less about the most primal, immediate of emotions on which the other three acts focus. Luhrmann's depiction of the lovers in more intimate moments is less comfortable, particularly when Rodolfo and Mimi embrace each other musically for the first time in front of the giant glowing red "L'amour" sign outside Rodolfo's rooftop garret. It looks great, but the sign is a greater focus than the lovers.
Catherine Martin's set designs embody greater subtlety elsewhere (though, again, not in the sumptuously appointed second act, which explodes as much visually as it does aurally), placing more focus on the performers, but even in those cases, the soul of the characters and their troubles are diluted. It's not to a great degree, but it's enough to prevent the most emotional moments in the narrative from being the most compelling.
Still, there is much that is good in this production, beginning and ending with the music. Under the musical direction of Constantine Kitsopoulos, the orchestra (28 pieces, including those used onstage) sounds wonderful. The orchestrations (by Nicholas Kitsopoulos) may lack a bit of the breadth one may associate with traditional opera, but still provide rich, full-bodied background for Puccini's soaring duets, trios, and energetic second act group numbers.
Interpreting this music is an impressive group of performers, apparently culled from years of exhaustive searching which resulted in three Rodolfos and Mimis and two Marcellos and Musettas. While I only attended one performance, I had no complaints with the combination I saw: David Miller and Ekaterina Solovyeva made an attractive and soulful pairing as Rodolfo and Mimi, providing thrilling vocal performances of their material. Ben Davis was less exciting as Marcello, though his Musetta, Chloe Wright, was sexy and seductive, very much the smoldering presence the role can so richly benefit from.
One of the production's most watchable and enjoyable performers has no billed alternate: Adam Grupper, as Benoit, the landlord threatening to collect the rent from Rodolfo, Marcello, and their fellow roommates (Daniel Webb and Daniel Okulitch), made his portion of the first act one of the funniest and most memorable of the evening.
Luhrmann's achievements in getting this La Boheme up and on Broadway can't be ignored - how many directors could pull off an opera (in the original Italian) on Broadway in this day and age? But his work with the Benoit scene and the second act festivities - suggesting an ease not entirely present throughout - suggest that a more fully comic opera might be an appropriate next endeavor for this talented director who seems to insists on blurring further the already indistinct lines between opera and Broadway.
Such action would not be unwelcome, particularly given the respect Luhrmann displays for both art forms. Where there is some artificial amplification utilized in this La Boheme, the sound design provided by Acme Sound Partners is so subtly implemented the vocalists and the orchestra never sound anything but completely natural. If any of Luhrmann's stylistic ideas and innovations are to bleed over into the world of commercial Broadway theatre, please let that one lead the way.
And let Luhrmann return to Broadway soon, in whatever form he chooses. He is capable of working magic live just as he is on film, even if La Boheme does not prove the most ideal vehicle for his talents. When he finds the right project, it seems safe to say Broadway will never be the same again.