January 26, 2004





Pop Goes Puccini

Theater and Opera Meet Again in 'La Boheme'



By Rob Kendt



Once upon a time, opera and musical theater weren't two distinctly barricaded forms; opera was musical theater, and vice versa. It is perhaps a measure of how far we've travelled from that time that Baz Luhrmann's all-stops-out La Boheme, now laid out like a banquet at the Ahmanson Theatre, registers so strongly, almost shockingly, as nothing less than a full-service entertainment.


But why shouldn't it? La Boheme, like most of Puccini's work, is almost ridiculously overstuffed with box-office entertainment values: sex, comedy, tragedy, spectacle and a hit-heavy soundtrack. It's enough to make us wonder: Have the traditions of operatic performance become so stultified that it takes a world-class entertainer like Luhrmann to remind us that the art form can also be a lot of unstuffy fun?


If Luhrmann's Boheme stands out from show business as usual, it's not simply because he's stamped his own impish, passionate signature all over it. It's because the show is a perfect match of sensibilities between composer and director, neither of whom ever had an idea they didn't want to see up in lights. Populist showmen to a fault, both Puccini and Luhrmann have an unashamedly sweet-toothed aesthetic that might justly be called excessive or indulgent, but never cynical. They believe in everything they do, even their most synthetic, manipulative effects, and such conviction is hard to resist, even if it comes in the kind of tricked-up, whiz-bang package to which so many self-appointed culture vultures seem congenitally allergic.


This is pop Puccini, certainly. But if you think Puccini was ever anything more or less than a pop phenom, you've got your head up your ear.


Invitation to the Dance

In his trio of color-saturated filmic romps (Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge), Luhrmann has shown himself to be not only a remarkably detail-oriented stylist but a gratifyingly self-aware artist; he often exposes the seams and gears of his meticulously constructed artificial worlds in a way that might be called Brechtian.


Here, too, La Boheme has the crew and stage manager roaming about the moving set pieces, hand-holding lighting instruments, even calling cues from the stage. But the result is, curiously, the reverse of Brechtian alienation; it feels instead more like an invitation to share in his creative joy, to collapse the wall between the backstage and the house.


Other similarly inclusive staging choices serve to sweep us into the play's world, from production designer Catherine Martin's three-dimensional set, strung carnival-style into the house with Nigel Levings' exposed-bulb lights, to the parade of Parisian nightlife that struts out front of and around conductor Constantine Kitsopoulos' orchestra.


Few of these striking night crawlers make a stronger impression than the saucy Musetta (played on opening by Chloe Wright), whose waltz aria justly stops the show. Indeed, I've never seen Musetta's unapologetic pleasure principle so fully, er, embodied; the voluptuous Wright looks a bit like Jessica Rabbit as envisioned by Fellini, and she's surrounded by a gallery of outsized comic types: a cuckolded patron with a hideous toupee (Tim Jerome), a frowning waiter, a midget, and assorted sailors and roustabouts. It's abundantly clear why she prefers hunky Marcello (Ben Davis) when the mood for love strikes her.


The central romance between writer Rodolfo and his muse Mimi proves less involving, partly because the impossibly high stakes of its tragic arc have to be taken mostly on faith--they're stated but barely dramatized in the libretto--and partly because Luhrmann's 1950s conception of the play makes this pair a little too MGM-musical glamorous. It doesn't help that the opening night's pair, Kelly Kaduce and David Miller, are both gorgeous, sunny-faced blondes. Death just doesn't become them.


Dig It, Daddy-O

The '50s beatnik conceit works much better with the boho camaraderie of Marcello and Rodolfo's set, which includes chubby, sleepy-eyed Colline (Daniel Webb) and the flouncingly mod Schaunard (Daniel Okultich). There's a lot of "daddy-o" and "dig it" in the supertitles, and a number of flipped middle fingers. None of this would work if the ensemble didn't look and act Luhrmann's thoroughgoing period choice so offhandedly well.


Indeed, if one must knock the production's priorities, one can say that Bernard Telsey's casting obviously focused more on nailing the looks and the acting chops than finding world-beating pipes. That conceded, it must be said that the quality of the vocals across the board is quite impressively high--something that can't be said of many a bona fide opera production--and that Kaduce and Davis in particular are a pair of singers who could hold their own in any opera house on the globe. That the leads are triple- or double-cast does suggest that the stars of this show are not the performers per se but Luhrmann and Co., and of course Puccini.


Opera obviously can't survive solely on the bankable star power of visionary directors and the taken-for-granted reputations of the great composers. But it can certainly survive this injection of fresh, frisky blood--and, one hopes, take some cues from its vigorously crowd-pleasing example.