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THEATER

What he did for love

Director Baz Luhrmann updates Puccini's 'La Boheme,' in a fond farewell to his own bohemian youth.

October 27, 2002|Jan Breslauer | Special to The Times

'O my youth! It is you that is being buried.'

-- Rodolphe

In Louis-Henri Murger's Scenes of Bohemian Life,

the basis of Puccini's La Boheme

New York

Agentle summer rain washes the streets of downtown Manhattan, glancing off the windows of a fourth-floor rehearsal studio in a corner building on lower Broadway. Seen from inside, the misty downfall becomes a diaphanous shroud, blurring the Saturday afternoon scene unfolding below into the timeless surrealism of a French film.

Inside the studio, a dozen singers sit in a circle -- reading sections of libretto, vocalizing phrases, laughing and chatting as they seek to uncover the deeper meanings in Giacomo Puccini's "La Boheme." The drizzly haze at the windows might well be a time warp, for they're probing text and music in much the same way as have countless sopranos, tenors, baritones and basses before them for more than 100 years, since the opera premiered in 1896. The bohemian life it celebrates is also a perennial: the passions, the jealousies, the overwrought poems, the overdue bills.

Yet for all that is eternal in this scene of artistic endeavor, there are clues that make it clear that this is the 21st century. There's a video camera recording the process, for instance, and high-tech and lighting equipment around the room. Most of all, there is the fact that the man in charge is film director Baz Luhrmann.

Luhrmann's production of "La Boheme" is one of the most highly anticipated stage events of the Broadway season, as well as the Australian director's first U.S. theatrical outing. Now running at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco -- where local reviewers have been overwhelmingly positive in their reception -- "La Boheme" will open at the Broadway Theatre in New York in early December after starting previews slightly later than planned. "La Boheme" will be the first test of whether Luhrmann can resume the success of his earlier Australian stage career here, and it may affect the positioning of the live division of his production company, Bazmark Inc., which is developing new stage versions of his films "Strictly Ballroom" and "Moulin Rouge." What's more, if the experiment works, it would be a shot in the arm for opera, which could always use another vehicle for mainstream crossover.

Updated to 1957 Paris, sung in Italian with English subtitles and cast with a retinue of photogenic young performers, this "La Boheme" is intended to bring new audiences to this staple of the repertoire. Yet apart from a younger cast, the use of microphones and other sound equipment, and a reduced orchestra in the pit, Luhrmann is doing "La Boheme" straight up, much as it would be done in an opera house. They're no outrageous concepts here, no postmodern deconstructions of the form. Although the trademark "L'amour" sign appears in "Moulin Rouge" and here as well, it's a long way from the cheeky insurrection of his last movie. And it's sure to confound anyone looking for the flashy sensory overload of "Moulin Rouge," with its coked-out take on 1899 Paris and grab-bag pop-rock soundtrack.

Although the $6.5-million-to-$7-million budget may seem small compared with the $50 million spent on "Moulin Rouge," there are risks inherent in bringing Italian opera to Broadway. Most obviously, it risks not satisfying the demands of regular theater- or operagoers, let alone Luhrmann devotees. "There are quicker ways to make money and gain success, let me tell you," the director says. "It's not a clever career move particularly. We're doing this for very personal reasons."

It's no mystery why the man who made "Moulin Rouge," with its band of bohemians and a starving writer protagonist in an Orpheus-like plot, would be drawn to the garret dwellers of "La Boheme." Puccini's bohemians may even have helped inspire the characters in "Moulin Rouge," since Luhrmann first staged the story of the poet Rodolfo's love for the dying seamstress Mimi at the Australian Opera in 1990, before he made his mark in film.

Luhrmann sees his remounting of "La Boheme" as a rite of passage for himself and his wife and Bazmark partner, designer Catherine Martin. "I always said, after 40 you wouldn't want to be doing 'La Boheme,' and I'm turning 40 just as we open," says the director, who's got the art of the schmooze down pat but doesn't flaunt what reveals itself in conversation to be a keen intelligence. "The red curtain's coming down on Act 1, and we've already begun on Act 2, but we have to deal with Act 1 and we're dealing with it through 'La Boheme.'

"When we did this 13 years ago, we ourselves were kind of kids -- 28 and 25," says Luhrmann, his slender build and wired energy barely contained by the deep chair in which he's seated. "And yes, if the piece is about saying goodbye to that bohemian, youthful time, then that's what it's about for us. We were deeply privileged and lucky to have had so much bohemia, so much youth, for so long. But I'm not lamenting it. I'm not wishing I was 25 again at all."

Act 1:

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