The success of Moulin Rouge has made Luhrmann a seemingly indestructible property; he's achieved the status of a hot fashion designer, with a touch for fabulousness and style that's both intangible and hard to criticize. Moulin Rouge was over-the-top, infectious fun. Some people have no taste for that kind of pop-cultural purée, but under the sensational choreography and honeyed songs, a few critics noticed the hand of a director who could pace his movie like, well, like an opera. Luhrmann's desire for spectacle turns out to be centuries old.
So if a Broadway version of La Bohème should be a natural hit, the question is: Will Luhrmann screw it up? He's using a Broadway-tailored, 26-piece orchestra (instead of about 80 pieces) to approximate Puccini's score, with some secondary orchestra parts programmed into a synthesizer. He's rehearsed three rotating sets of lead singers, to ease the strain on their voices of a grueling Broadway schedule. (Opening night saw the so-called Red cast.) He's also miked the singers, which is taboo in an opera house. Cut corners like that, and mix in Luhrmann's preference for sensation, and what do you have? Real opera, or just a fancy musical?
Surprise: It's real opera. Luhrmann benefits from lowered expectations, like George Bush, but in the end he delivers a fanciful, well-sung, and moving show. David Miller sings Rodolfo, the struggling playwright, in a clear, strong tenor, and acts with a natural grace and ease. (All of Luhrmann's singers know how to act.) Ekaterina Solovyeva is even brighter and more passionate as Mimi, the consumptive seamstress who falls in love with Rodolfo. Solovyeva, in fact, is sometimes too bright and strong; she sings even the opening lines of her first aria, "Mi chiamano Mimi," with a vibrant, hard-edged, trembling expression. (The line "I love those things that have a gentle magic" soars for the rafters.) On the other hand, Jessica Comeau has a nicely rounded, molten, soft-edged voice, which is pretty but all wrong for a brazen tramp like Musetta; Solovyeva's robust singing actually overpowers Comeau in the third act. But Eugene Brancoveanu, as the painter Marcello, plays opposite Musetta with a sturdy baritone and fluid acting style that make him fun to watch.
Luhrmann's showy sensibility comes out in Catherine Martin's monumental set. The bohemians' apartment in Act 1 is a dirty-windowed Parisian garret with a red electric sign -- "L'amour" -- on the roof. Rodolfo and Mimi sing in front of that sign, the way Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor do in Moulin Rouge. The Café Momus street scene in Act 2 is rather brilliantly designed like a black-and-white movie, with Parisian storefronts, extras' costumes, and even neon lights all in tones of gray -- except, notably, for that big "L'amour" sign, the toys of Parpignol, and the colorfully dressed bohemians. Fake snow falls from blowers held by intentionally visible stagehands, and the whole scene has a sad Parisian pomp. It looks like Paris in a 1950s film; it also hints at the director's favorite theme of life as illusion, of love itself as a beautiful but temporary pleasure like those toys.
Overall, this show is a better version of La Bohème than the San Francisco Opera has in its current repertoire. The singing and acting I saw at the opera two years ago were so flaccid I decided never to bother with another live La Bohème. There's nothing to the plot, after all; it's a simple love story. Puccini's opera stands or falls on singing -- which the Red cast can do just fine -- and spectacle, which Luhrmann has turned into an art.