Baz Luhrmann has a reinvention fetish to rival Madonna's. But if hers is turned inward, concentrating on her own ever-malleable persona, the Australian director's radiates out, looking around impatiently for new genres to tackle. Six years ago, Luhrmann brought campy energy to the Shakespearean film adaptation, dropping Romeo and Juliet into a garish seaside landscape ("Verona Beach") and shooting the Capulet masked ball scene through the eyes of a Romeo on acid. With the endlessly inventive if nerve-jangling Moulin Rouge, he helped revive the movie musical, a film type Hollywood had basically given up on.
Now—and I tell you this just in case you've yet to be splashed by the show's tsunami of advance hype—Luhrmann and his wife, Catherine Martin, who designs all of his productions and won a pair of Oscars for Moulin Rouge, are taking a crack at opera. Their version of the 1896 Puccini classic La Bohème, set to open in December on Broadway, is in the middle of its out-of-town tryout in San Francisco. This fall it's been right up there with the World Series as the most sought-after ticket in town. The draw, of course, is the director himself: While his 1996 film was officially called William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, this show carries the top-heavy title Baz Luhrmann's Production of Puccini's La Bohème.
Set in 1957, it's actually an updated version of a production Luhrmann and Martin first staged for the Australian Opera in 1990, when they were both in their 20s. (It was filmed in Sydney for television and still pops up on PBS from time to time.) Like that earlier production, the Broadway-bound incarnation is sung in Italian but in other ways takes liberties with traditional operatic staging. When I saw it recently in San Francisco, some in the audience seemed a little unsure about what qualifies as appropriate opera-going attire. A few people near me showed up in what appeared to be their prom outfits, rescued from years of closet exile. Oddly enough, that offered early evidence that Luhrmann's goal of bringing opera to a mass audience is already succeeding.
The show itself is a mixed bag: a worthy experiment that doesn't quite measure up to its turbo-charged marketing campaign. The news, first reported in the Wall Street Journal, that the artfully distressed Parisian cityscape onstage contains paid ads for Montblanc pens (a rooftop sign) and Piper-Heidsieck champagne (barely legible on the side of a building) has been getting a lot of attention here the last few days. ("Product placement, per Puccini," the Journal called it.) But the most striking thing about the production is that its dramatic priorities could not possibly be more different from the ones that propelled Moulin Rouge. That film was mannered, layered, and stuffed to the point of distraction. Luhrmann's opera is an exercise in economy and directness. It just wants to make itself understood—and maybe trigger a few tears along the way.
The production has its chaotic moments, to be sure, most notably a raucously entertaining take on the bohemians' second-act trip to the Café Momus. And Luhrmann's love of anachronism, of one era or style mashed right up against another, is on full display. But elsewhere the tone is muted and reflective, and in general Luhrmann and Martin opt for a brisk, stripped-down aesthetic. There is no curtain. The conductor, Constantine Kitsopoulos, launches right into the score without the traditional bow. Some of the lighting is held by crew members onstage who sit or stand in full view of the audience. The scene changes are similarly exposed, announced by capital letters on the super-title screens that read SCENE CHANGE. The translation of the libretto tries hard to be idiomatically up-to-date: When the lights go out near the end of the first act, one of the singers cries out, "Oh my God! A blackout!"
The reason for the informal approach is simple: Luhrmann likes most of all to go against the grain. In the case of Moulin Rouge, he figured the movie business needed a dose of highly theatricalized entertainment to counter Hollywood's growing emphasis on softheaded realism. He came to a very different conclusion when he took a look at current operatic productions, one of the culture's last hideouts for wooden melodrama. Maybe the most revolutionary way to stage an opera, Luhrmann decided, would be simply to focus on clarity and emotional immediacy.
La Bohème, also the basis for Jonathan Larson's Rent, is a natural choice for this kind of populist reinvention: Not only are its characters young and easy to root for, but the whole thing is only about two hours long. In traditional productions of Bohème, though, it's not uncommon for the starving-artist heroes to be played by a band of graying, thick-around-the-middle singers who find it tough to bend and touch their knees, let alone fling themselves around the stage in happiness or sorrow.
Baz's Bohème goes full-bore in the other direction, trading vocal seasoning for youth and energy. He assembled his cast in a worldwide talent hunt that auditioned more than 3,000 singers—the opera-world equivalent of American Idol. Because Broadway shows include eight performances per week, a schedule no opera singer's throat is equipped to handle, Luhrmann hired three sets of performers to play Mimi and Rodolfo, the lovers who conduct Bohème's doomed love affair. All six singers are still in their 20s—and as a critic for Variety put it, "there are very few unaerobicized pounds on stage."
In this company, Luhrmann, who turned 40 in September, practically qualifies as a grizzled veteran. He does know Bohème intimately, and there are some very controlled, very smart touches in his staging. Throughout the show he moves the actors and the design elements from realism to illusion and back again, just as the young characters fluctuate between playing at adulthood and confronting it, in the form of Mimi's fourth-act death.
But the director, in the end, tips the scales too far in the direction of broad accessibility. The Mimi and Rodolfo I saw, 25-year old Chinese-born soprano Wei Huang and baby-faced British tenor Alfred Boe, took wide-eyed innocence to an extreme: They looked barely old enough to carry a learner's permit in their wallets, let alone a Broadway production on their shoulders. (Ticket-seekers in New York, take note: A different pair, David Miller and Ekaterina Solovyeva, have been the Rodolfo and Mimi most praised by critics.)
And maybe the technical crew still has some tinkering to do before the Broadway opening, but the way the production amplifies its singers and 26-piece orchestra (about a third the size of what's typical for an opera of its era) often sounds not just uneven but amateurish. Luhrmann and Kitsopoulos' decision to support the secondary orchestral parts artificially, with a synthesizer, makes a little more sense, because Broadway-sized houses just can't accommodate a 70-piece orchestra. But any self-respecting tenor should be able to reach the last row of a theater this size without a technological boost.
For me, Luhrmann's whole Bohème strategy is called into question by the single fact of that vocal amplification. Musical theater fans might not even notice it—it's certainly less obvious than the sonic manipulation that happens every night in Mamma Mia! or The Lion King. But where Luhrmann's acts of theatrical piling on usually give his shows added sophistication, this one tugs Bohème in the other direction, toward an unsubtle dumbing-down. And in a production that so prizes the clear and the unadorned, Luhrmann's decision to pump up the vocals seems especially out of place. It makes Luhrmann's efforts at operatic minimalism look somehow less than fully genuine. And it suggests that no matter what kind of surface calm he imposes on a production, he remains an unreconstructed showman down deep—trusting the material he's working with, whether it's a Shakespearean text or a Puccini score, only so far when it comes to winning over a contemporary audience. Even when Baz's brain decides on restraint, in other words, his heart leads him in another direction entirely.