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Baz's Bohème 

Can the director of Moulin Rouge succeed in the opera?

Wednesday, Sep 25 2002
If opera is on its last legs, as we hear all the time, then filmmaker Baz Luhrmann is just the man to give it a boost. The Australian Wunderkind is an old pro at making stuffy art forms palatable to the general public. After his first film, 1992's Strictly Ballroom -- a high-energy romp about a Sydney dance contest -- became a runaway hit, he transferred the Bard's star-crossed lovers to SoCal for 1996's William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet. Last year he breathed life into the tired movie musical with Moulin Rouge. Now Luhrmann turns his attention to an even more challenging directive: bringing opera back to the masses. In one of the most-hyped theater events in recent memory, he revamps Puccini's 1896 classic La Bohème and previews it in San Francisco during a six-week engagement, before it makes its premiere in December as the first opera ever on Broadway.

Luhrmann is no stranger to the tale of the indigent poet Rodolfo and his consumptive lover Mimi. He first staged the bohemian rhapsody more than 10 years ago at the Sydney Opera House, an act that resulted in many old-timers canceling their subscriptions. Moulin Rouge, which grossed $175 million worldwide and received several Academy Award nominations, was itself a take on La Bohème.

But local operagoers need not get their glasses in a fog. Though Luhrmann has demonstrated his prowess at pushing the envelope, this show is no bastardization of Puccini's much-loved masterwork. Sung in Italian with surtitles, the original score remains untouched. Of course, there will be changes. Luhrmann's wife and creative partner, Catherine Martin, is in charge of updating the costumes and sets from 1830s Paris to the postwar city of 1957. Performances are to be miked (common practice in the theater world, but a no-no in the opera house), and the traditional 80-plus orchestra has been downsized by more than half. And don't bother waiting around for the fat lady to sing: In Baz's world, Mimi and Rodolfo are played alternately by three sets of slender singers, all approximately the same age as their twentysomething characters.

Puccini's tragedy is the perfect vehicle for Luhrmann. At least according to the American producers of the Broadway hit Rent -- another adaptation of La Bohème -- who had been courting Luhrmann to bring his rendition stateside. Some critics have said that this venture is career suicide, and Luhrmann certainly faces a tough challenge in pleasing various contingents: Theatergoers may find his adaptation too stylized, and opera buffs may find it too artless. It'll also be interesting to see whether he can draw fans of his films without giving them his trademark hyper editing, manic camera angles, and eclectic soundtracks. But as Puccini enthusiasts know, l'amour conquers all, and for Luhrmann this is a labor of love.

About The Author

Lisa Hom


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