In the first scene of director Baz Luhrmann’s unique take on Puccini’s “La Boheme,” freezing writer Rodolfo (David Miller) sets fire to his manuscript so the burning paper can warm his icy garret, explaining, “Let art provide the flame.” Art, in the form of Luhrmann’s wholly original creative choices, also provides the flame for a modern reconception of the opera that toys irresistibly with lighting, sound, casting approach and overall flavor. Luhrmann delights in breaking rules, as he did in his film “Moulin Rouge,” and the cheeky modern tone, slang-filled English translations and heightened sexuality gives “La Boheme” fresh, contemporary relevance for Los Angeles’ non-opera fans as well as devotees.
Although Luhrmann places the plot in 1957, accompanied by a 1954 French movie poster of Marlon Brando’s “The Wild One” on the garret door, he never sacrifices the integrity and spirit of Puccini’s original. The four bohemian friends — Rodolfo (David Miller), Marcello (Ben Davis), philosopher Colline (Daniel C. Webb) and musician Schaunard (Daniel Okulitch) have always been playful characters, but this production further emphasizes their giddy, knockabout vigor and youthful joy, while preserving the reality of their creative despair and dire poverty.
Whether huddling together and sharing wine and bread in a bathtub, or outsmarting their angry landlord, Benoit (Tim Jerome), by exposing his adulteries, they offer hilarious changes of mood from the story’s sweepingly romantic elements.
These romantic elements in other productions have tipped over into exaggerated, breast-beating melodrama — as demonstrated by the Luciano Pavarotti/Mirella Freni version for the San Francisco Opera — but Luhrmann injects wit and a bright, bantering quality into all the encounters between Rodolfo and his neighbor, tubercular seamstress Mimi (Kelly Kaduce). David Miller is a superlative tenor and an actor of astonishing range, equally comfortable as enraptured lover or clown. When he falls for Mimi after just a few seconds, we believe and accept it completely.
This overwhelming infatuation is justified by Kaduce’s exquisite Mimi. Physically captivating and gifted with a soaringly pure soprano, Kaduce walks that elusive line between fragility and passion, always suggesting the gravity of her illness without milking it. Her acting range enables her to grip and hold our emotions through a death scene often been criticized for excessive length.
Interest is dramatically maintained by contrasting Rodolfo and Mimi with Marcello (Davis) and Musetta (Chloe Wright). Wright, playing a sexual predator in clinging lipstick red dress, black fur cape and long gloves, is Mimi’s opposite, an echo of Rita Hayworth’s Gilda, a woman who “feeds on men’s hearts” and betrays her former lover Marcello with a wealthy older man.
Davis’ rich, fervent baritone captures his jealousy and rage each time he discovers a new infidelity. A memorable spot occurs in Act Three, when Miller and Kaduce sing with devotion and Davis and Wright sing against them in contentious counterpart.
“La Boheme’s” expansive use of color is breathtakingly magnified on the spacious Ahmanson stage. It jumps out at us through the enormous red sign spelling “l’amour,” also utilized in “Moulin Rouge.” But this image is only prelude to a magnificent act two street scene created by double Oscar and Tony winner (for this show) Catherine Martin.
Nigel Levings’ lighting illuminates every detail of the city, highlighting Cafe Noir, Cafe Momus and the brothel. Spectators will rightly gasp at the unveiling of a street packed with prostitutes, nuns, sailors, a dwarf, children on roller skates, gendarmes and a toy seller. Martin, with Angus Strathie, also deserves applause for such varying costumes as Schaunard’s yellow coat and hat, suggesting the sunflower gold hues of Van Gogh, or Rodolfo’s purple bathrobe that brings to mind the vibrant purple of Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings.
Frequently irreverent English translations projected on four screens are breezy, helpful plot guides and entertaining in themselves. The show also takes a gamble by using clearly visible stagehands to move and turn set pieces around, and it works perfectly, adding a sense of fluidity and freedom to the whole conception.
Acme Sound Partners supplies a clear balance between orchestra and singers, enabling us to enjoy Constantine Kitsopoulos’ lush strings and delicately sparse open-fifth progressions in act three.
“La Boheme” is too demanding for the same leads to perform daily, and singers other than those who appeared opening night will be featured on a rotating basis. Alfred Boe played Rodolfo at a Jan. 15 preview, matching David Miller in vocal and acting skill and adding his own boyishly urgent stamp to the part. Wei Huang’s soprano was technically admirable, but her Mimi was distant and self-contained, rarely relating directly or passionately to her leading man.
On the other hand, the beauty of having multiple interpretations is that it offers an opportunity to experience equally effective but entirely different portrayals. Ben Davis on opening night brought a lighter touch to Marcello, and it’s worth attending the show a second time to see Eugene Brancoveanu’s more aggressive, highly charged interpretation. Jessica Comeau’s Musetta is just as compelling as Chloe Wright’s, capable of nailing the same spine-chilling high B in act two. Comeau’s version of promiscuity is somewhat more subdued, while still maintaining its own, flirtatious charm.
Whatever the cast, Luhrmann successfully contradicts Puccini’s unhappy 1922 statement, “I believe this is the end of opera,” by making the genre widely viable again for new generations.