Opera for the cell-phone generation

Broadway version of 'La Boheme' doesn't compare with the real thing

Classical Music

March 30, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

The last time I was in New York, I took in two operas on Broadway -- Les Troyens by Berlioz at the Metropolitan Opera up around 63rd Street, and La Boheme by Puccini at the Broadway Theatre, around 53rd. The distance between 10 blocks never seemed so vast before. The first experience was real opera. The second might be called reality opera -- attractive young people facing considerable challenges for the chance at a little fame and fortune.

The initial excitement over Baz Luhrmann's production of Boheme, which opened in December, suggested nothing less than the beginning of civilization as we know it. Startling ticket sales in the first week made it look as if the show would have an Andrew Lloyd Webber-style run.

Well, things seem a little more rational now, the buzz about Baz's Boheme a little less hyper. According to press reports a few days ago, box-office receipts are way down to just above the break-even point; it's far from certain that the production's costs, said to be $8.5 million, will be recovered fully. Whatever its ultimate fate, however, this venture has certainly made a mark on theater history. Who would have ever thought the day would come when Puccini's bio would be included in the "Who's Who in the Cast" section of a Playbill, right alongside the ones by budding actor types who invariably end theirs with those cloying expressions of love and thanks to family and friends?

Never mind that opera came to Broadway long ago -- and I don't mean the Met. Gian Carlo Menotti defied pundits by successfully staging several of his operas on the Great White Way in the 1940s and '50s; they enjoyed very respectable runs, something a lot of folks seem to have forgotten. But those works were conceived with traditional theatrical venues in mind, not grand opera houses, and were written in English. Luhrmann's gamble was to take grand opera to the land of Cats and Les Miz, give it the full Broadway treatment, yet perform it complete and in the original Italian.

Not surprisingly, initial reactions in the press to this Boheme were mixed. Theater critics tended to approve (even gush all over it); music critics tended to find fault (even spew all over it). When I finally had a chance to check out the phenomenon for myself, I tried to forget all the reviews. My mind, eyes and ears were as wide open as I could make them.

That didn't require great effort, especially since I admired Luhrmann's first Boheme, done for Opera Australia in 1990 and subsequently broadcast on PBS (the Broadway venture is largely based on that initial effort). The singing back then wasn't much to write home about, but the acting was natural and involving, and the updating to 1957 Paris surprisingly persuasive. It was evident that Luhrmann loved and understood the beauty and message of Puccini's work, sympathized with the opera's vivid characters, those young bohemian friends who get a deep taste of love, jealousy, suffering and death. I remember being quite moved by that Australian performance, as I am invariably moved by any thoughtful performance of Boheme.

A lot going for it

But it wasn't long after being seated at the Broadway Theatre that I felt let down. This was not quite a revelatory Boheme, after all, hardly the Boheme of my dreams. I certainly understand why some folks have thrilled to it, especially those new to opera. There's something immediately striking about a perky young cast thoroughly committed to the task, attuned to every word of text and admirably skilled in the art of theatrical movement.

And excepting a lot of tiresome business involving open-view scene changes (stage hands and their machinations are visible before and during the performance), the physical properties of the production are imaginative and appealing. The bohemians' garret, behind a rooftop neon sign proclaiming "L'amour," evokes the time and place tellingly; the other scenes exude abundant atmosphere. I especially love how the tormented lovers, Mimi and Rodolfo, move seamlessly from outdoors in Act 3 to a tiny upstairs room (recalling that confined garret where first they met) when they try to sort out their relationship.

Above all, Luhrmann's direction never runs out of ideas. Rodolfo, having found Mimi's lost key, holds out two clenched hands and asks her to pick which one might be clutching it; that little gesture -- and the result when he opens his hands -- is very charming. In the last act, when the men are acting all silly and trying out various dance steps, Luhrmann comes up with an absolutely brilliant bit for the fandango portion; here, since we're in 1957, the music inspires a burst of jazzy steps from the guys, a la West Side Story. That movement lasts no more than a few seconds, but leaves an indelible impression. In fact, the whole horsing-around business in that scene is superbly conceived, timed and executed.

Shtick thick

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