Baz Luhrmann’s much-anticipated production of La Bohème on Broadway is by no means the most moving version of the opera I’ve experienced, but without question it’s the chicest. You can understand why fashionistas rave over Baz. What you’re sure to remember the most is the lovely, cool design-or stylish surface of tragic things.
It’s a trendy production that, at center, is surprisingly traditional. It remains true to Puccini’s original score. It doesn’t gut the story, as Peter Brook’s pared-down version of another old favorite, Bizet’s Carmen , was like a fat fish filleted to the bone.
A basic black-and-white set suddenly splashed startlingly with color isn’t new (cf. The Wizard of Oz ). But the black and white and various tones of gray of Catherine Martin’s terrific design for the rooftop-garret scenes make this Bohème memorably downtown-chic. Puccini’s 19th-century bohemian Paris has also been updated to everyone’s “in” period -the always fashionable 1950’s (Dior, Sartre, Brando). The occasional liberties taken with the English translation projected onto surtitles above the stage are a neat comment on traditional operatic stuffiness. Even so, the pseudo-hip “50’s-speak” creaks a bit: “Listen up, cats!” “Welcome, daddy-o!”-as opposed to the more contemporary “I’m freezing my ass off.”
Can’t get that at the Met. But Mr. Luhrmann’s stage techniques have, in fact, been commonplace in avant-garde theater for years-the stagehands (dressed in black) openly changing the scenery during the action, the hand-held spotlights, his undisguised illusion of theater and the use of highly fluid, cinematic perspectives. It’s the sum of the visual parts here that turns out so brilliantly.
For my money, Mr. Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge was really a manic mess of a potentially great stage musical on film. His Bohème is a carefully staged opera that very much wants to be a movie. (Partly produced by Bob and Harvey Weinstein, it surely soon will be, starring Gwyneth Paltrow lip-synching heroically as poor, consumptive Mimi). To say of an opera that it’s as stylish as good commercial art isn’t an insult, except, perhaps, to opera purists. The perfectly lit stage picture of Mimi’s famous entrance into the grunge chaos of Rodolfo’s rooftop garret might easily be a hip commercial for lipstick, actually. The single, startling intrusion of color into the gray scene is Mimi’s bright red lipstick-and very nice, too.
Similarly, the lovers’ melting duet, “O, soave fanciulla,” is sung on the rooftop overlooking the huge, red neon sign ” L’amour .” It’s a beautiful and very simple artifice-the heartbeat of Puccini’s opera, an exquisite advertisement for itself.
The director also has an intoxicating flair for crowd scenes that threaten to hyperventilate at Café Momus. The vibrant young scene of the café conjures up a Luhrmann stage picture that brims with so much life and vitality, it invites us seductively to dive into the action. The comedy is broad-too broad!-but Jessica Comeau shines as the fabulous, free-thinking slut Musetta in her waltz, “Quando me’n vo.” And as Bohème’ s eternal paean to youth goes, “Better to burn bright, die young.”
But I’m afraid the second act’s bleak spiral into death doesn’t live up to the first act’s artful great promise. Mr. Luhrmann has used up his visual aces. He’s left, if you will, naked with the intimacy of pure operatic voices, and the tragic descent to the final “Sono andati?”
Opera purists shouldn’t feel uncomfortable with the fine production, but they will surely sniff at the thin, miked Broadway orchestra. I’m writing this while listening, snob that I am, to the 1956 Sir Thomas Beecham recording of Bohème with Victoria de los Angeles and Jussi Björling-said to be the greatest Mimi and Rodolfo of them all. It’s an unfair comparison to a masterwork, but tinny Broadway orchestra or no, the voices of Mr. Luhrmann’s young, great-looking cast are good, adequate (and loud). Crucially, Mimi’s surefire death scene- the operatic death scene-left me cold and brooding about what went wrong.
The leads change at different performances, but I found the Mimi of Ekaterina Solovyeva much too poised and emotionally remote, and David Miller’s refined, soft Rodolfo a type. The grittier, excellent Marcello of Eugene Brancoveanu was more lyrical, his hot relationship with Ms. Comeau’s Musetta truer. But the cast isn’t ultimately to blame.
You should never have a big death scene performed in a chair. Death scenes are best horizontal. Otherwise, it’s like watching someone nod off in front of the telly. Mr. Luhrmann has put the dying Mimi in an armchair! He had no choice. His garret neglects having a bed or even a chaise lounge. Instead, there’s a grungy old bath for boisterous comic purposes. Obviously, Mimi can’t croak in a bath. So an upright tragedy in a chair it is.
But that isn’t quite it, either. From the beginning, the signature motif of the production points the way to L’amour -electric love announced, polished, writ large and externalized. But felt? In the end, Baz Luhrmann’s ultra-chic Bohème gives us the glowing artifice of tragic love without the price.
A View From the Met
Some of us have felt for years that Arthur Miller’s 1955 A View from the Bridge is a Broadway play secretly longing to be an opera. The premiere of William Bolcom’s new version at the Met, with a taut, urban poetic libretto by Arnold Weinstein and Mr. Miller, is a resounding success-arguably better, dare one say it, than the original play.
That’s quite a claim. But some things are better sung than spoken, and in his role as solo Greek chorus, the preachy lawyer-commentator of the play can seem pretentious. The masterstroke here is to create a true operatic chorus of Red Hook. Directed by Frank Galati-whose Broadway credits include Ragtime and the supreme Grapes of Wrath -we gain a real sense of neighborhood and conscience in the Brooklyn landscape.
Now here’s a tale of tragic love (incest) that pays a price (the death of Eddie, the longshoreman infatuated with his niece, Catherine). Arthur Miller, the poet of the common man, has never been afraid of big, heartfelt emotions, and the emotion of the new opera burns even within the demanding, vast, lunatic auditorium of the Met.
Mr. Bolcom’s unshowy, highly charged modernist score is specifically American with its jazzy undertow of the city, its love of rag and devious pastiche. The rich score, and in turn Mr. Miller’s original script, are exactly matched by Mr. Bolcom’s longtime librettist, Mr. Weinstein-a master of poetic compression whose sung words are muscular, colloquial, tender and real. “To America I Sailed on a Ship Called Hunger” is their unsentimental testament to immigration. The doo-wop quartet that unexpectedly opens Act II is the composer’s tribute to U.S. popular music; the sweet aria “New York Lights” a nod to the Broadway of Richard Rodgers.
No stage actor I’ve seen in the role of the happy-go-lucky Italian immigrant Rodolpho has managed to pull off singing Johnny Black’s “Paper Doll.” They tip-toe toward it, but no problem here! The supreme young tenor, Gregory Turay, lands the deliberately treacly version irresistibly and, of course, charms the socks off everyone.
Mr. Turay and the shimmering soprano of Isabel Bayrakdarian, in her Met debut as Catherine, were outstanding. Along with the dignity of the bass-baritone of Richard Bernstein’s Marco, Kim Josephson’s monumental, fated Eddie and the emotional commitment of Catherine Malfitano’s Beatrice, the ensemble could scarcely be better. The
sets, as strong and steely as the Brooklyn Bridge, are by Santo Loquasto, who also designed the costumes, and the black-and-white projection designs by Wendall Harrington are exactly right.
I never know what will work on Broadway until it does. But Arthur Miller’s epic theater piece A View from the Bridge has found a new, long-promised home.