When did the perception of opera get reduced to the image of fat ladies warbling while rich gentlemen doze in their expensive seats? It just ain’t so, or at least doesn’t need to be: Supertitles unscramble the text; innovative directors regularly bust the stereotype of breastplates and spears; and Parsifal could theoretically share repertory space with The Who’s Tommy — an opera.
Still, there’s nothing like a production filled with razzle-dazzle, a handsome young cast, and the recent memory of the showy gorgeousness that Australian director Baz Luhrmann conjured with cheap pop songs in Moulin Rouge to entice an otherwise fat-lady-phobic audience into his flamboyant hepcat production of Giacomo Puccini’s La Boheme. Back in 1896, when the Italian composer put music to the story of Mimi, a tubercular seamstress, and Rodolfo, the starving poet who loves her warmly in a cold Paris garret, going to an opera was the local entertainment, a crowd-pleaser, a blast. Now, in Luhrmann’s blasty, crowd-pleasing update (first staged at the Sydney Opera House in 1990), audiences are invited to relax and stop worrying about when the fat lady will sing; she won’t, because her type couldn’t negotiate designer Catherine Martin’s fab, multilevel sets or movie-glam costumes — the main reason to see this otherwise conventional Broadway-boho production.
Instead, while moving the action to 1957 Paris, Luhrmann the showman seduces with downtown-style stagecraft (the stagehands are visible, manipulating snow and other Fantasticks-style effects), Moulin Rouge-rich mise-en-scenes, and a truncated libretto (sung in the original Italian, but translated into lusty modern idiom) timed for those who need to catch a train or hit a club after the performance.
Then there’s the cast of lithe, attractive singers who, if they weren’t handling Puccini at the moment, could easily slip into the action in Jonathan Larson’s Boheme-based hit Rent just down the street. Three sets of Mimis and Rodolfos contrast their straight-arrow, coughing-fit love with that of two sets of been-around-the-block lovers Musetta and Marcello. And throughout the night, L’amour looms large. Literally — in blood-red electric script that glows above the gray Parisian rooftops, as it did in Moulin Rouge, and before that in Luhrmann’s feverish updated-for-teens movie version of Romeo and Juliet.
Billboard-size love is always the theme of the director’s extravagant gestures. Only this time, more specifically, the pitch — unsubtle, not a little boorish, but full of chic charm — is ”Love opera! It’s just like Broadway — but with subtitles!”