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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the January 15, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Broadway Review: `La Boheme’

Sing out! "La Boheme" the opera is on Broadway.

It is a triumph from stage, opera, and film director Baz Luhrmann

and his wife and creative partner, production designer Catherine Martin.

A spectacle of artistry on every level, this bountiful musical treat

is filled with hot romance, charming comedy, and genuine pathos. And

it is of a non-condescending sort that is often missing in traditional

opera productions. Directed with an eye for action (not a dull, stagnant,

or unaffecting moment in this opera), it is performed by singers that

young, beautiful, handsome and uniformly excellent actors. Do you

need more?

The curtain is already up as you enter the Broadway theater. What

you see is a massive hunk of machinery, its dark nondescript contours

preside over the less imposing smaller pieces of colorless forms with

which it shares the dimly lit stage. What is it and where are we?

Firstly, it is bleak, to say the least. Yet, anyone who knows the

work of Luhrmann and Martin ("Strictly Ballroom," "William

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet," "Moulin Rouge") will

not be surprised by their ability to create unparalleled theatrical

and cinematic illusions.

Then there is the sight of men in black who begin, without fanfare,

to manually move, shift, roll, and turn the pieces slowly into a world

that even Giacomo Puccini would eventually come to recognize as the

rooftop garret setting for his opera "La Boheme." With the

opening notes, we have been transported to Paris in the 1950s and

for the next two hours sit transfixed. The fluidly devised stage magic

that occurs throughout the opera is always done in full view of the

audience. The scene on the Left Bank, the Cafe Momus, is created by

what looks like an unmanaged massing and mingling of the entire company

of carousers, revelers, children, and other assorted bohemians who

are then suddenly frozen in a tableau vivant that then literally explodes

with color and teeming life. It’s breathtaking and deserving of the

gasp and applause from the audience.

Let’s not belabor the point but settle it once and for

all: Opera is not new, strange, or unusual on Broadway. Even if you

discount Lord Webber’s pop operas and the countless sung-through derivations,

including the current "Les Miz" and "Aida," a few

of Menotti’s operas have had Broadway runs, as did Gershwin’s "Porgy

and Bess." Oops, I almost forgot acclaimed productions of "Carmen,"

and "Rosalinda" (an English version of "Die Fledermaus").

There must be more. Okay, so this is the first one sung in Italian.

Don’t worry, there are super-titles above, below, and to the sides

of you. These are a hoot as they are translated into 1950s vernacular

and include such gems as "Daddy-O," "where it’s at,"

and assorted expletives.

Whether you are an opera fan or not, this is a production designed

to thrill and move you. Purists will just have to deal with the idea

that the opera works just as nicely updated as it once did set in

the 1830s. And yes, tuberculosis was still unchecked in Paris in the

1950s. This is a newly envisioned version of the opera that Luhrmann

and Martin did 12 years ago for the Sydney Opera. Despite the overwhelming

presence of playful and innovative conceits, the opera is also treated

with reverence. The opera is above all respectfully served by the

intensity of young love and by the sheer energy that drives this opera.

It moves and breathes like none I have seen before.

Although I was invited to see more than one of the three alternating

casts of principals, time only allowed me to see one. At the performance

I attended the blonde and lovely Ekaterina Solovyeva was Mimi, the

seamstress with consumption, and comely David Miller, as Rodolfo,

the impoverished poet. They meet when she loses the key to her room

and it’s love at first sight. When they climb out of the garret onto

the rooftop for their ecstatic can’t-keep-their-hands-off-each-other

duet, "O soave fanciulia," the red-hot neon sign beside them

reading "L’amour" only underlines the passion. Even better

is the interplay of these well-defined personalities, as they break

up and make up again and again, in the musically rapturous snow-falling

scene at the border in Act III. I think I’ll just preserve and live

with the memory and not go back.

Giving the leads a run for the money are Eugene Brancoveanu, as the

painter with a lust for life, and the radiant Jessica Comeau as the

spirited and sluttish Musetta. As sung with delicious abandon by Comeau,

"Musetta’s Waltz" (the show’s hit tune) has never before (to

these eyes) personified by such a juicy dish. Delightful and decadent

Bohemians to the last, the entire company, under the masterful musical

director and conductor Constantine Kitsopoulos, deserve bravos. Four stars. Don’t miss.

— Simon Saltzman

La Boheme, Broadway Theater, 1681 Broadway, between 52nd

and 53rd streets, New York City. $20 to $95. Tele-Charge, 800-432-7250

or 212-239-6200.

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