October 23, 2002

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Bohemian rhapsody
Luhrmann's take on La Bohème lives up to the hype.

By Rob Avila

SAY WHAT YOU will, Baz Luhrmann puts the glamour in l'amour. In fact, "L'amour" spelled out in red Coca-Cola lettering has become the insignia of a style that's unabashedly romantic, frenetically hip, and always conspicuous.

But for all his stylistic exuberance, Luhrmann wisely chose to play a supporting role to Puccini in his production of La Bohème, debuting in San Francisco and charting an unprecedented course for Broadway. The result is a sensitive (and glamorous) rendering of the opera that stays musically and thematically true to its roots while employing a rotating, three-team cast of fetching young opera mavens and updating the action to the 1950s. Puccini's opera tells the story of a tragic love affair between Rodolfo (David Miller), a poet, and Mimi (Ekaterina Solovyeva), a lonely seamstress suffering from tuberculosis. Act 1 opens in a garret on Christmas Eve, in the bohemian Paris of 1957, where Rodolfo and the painter Marcello (Eugene Brancoveanu) struggle to work in their unheated lodgings. Their stomachs are empty, but their spirits are high (as artists, they've clearly grown somewhat accustomed to desperate circumstances). Their friend Colline (Daniel Webb), a philosopher, soon joins them, followed shortly by the musician Schaunard (Daniel Okulitch), who, through a bit of luck, has managed the makings of a Christmas dinner.

Into this cozy world of young idealists, with its cheerful sacrifices for truth and beauty, comes Mimi to light Rodolfo's poetic imagination. Initially Rodolfo is swept up in the ecstasy of new love. "He's found his poetry!" Marcello exclaims. But by act 3 things have taken a turn for the worse. For his part, Marcello soon rekindles a romance with the fiery coquette Musetta (Jessica Comeau), and their relationship forms a lesser, often comic parallel to Rodolfo and Mimi's.

The impressive production design of Catherine Martin, Luhrmann's collaborator and spouse, adds a characteristic visual flair that audiences who've seen his films will recognize. The garret's elaborate white and cobalt gray color scheme beautifully sets off the actors in their motley costumes like splashes of bright color on a canvas, while act 2's street scene outside Café Momus bursts out beyond the orchestra pit in a coruscated Montmartre holiday – complete with a whirling carnival of couples, sailors, prostitutes, policemen, children on roller skates, hucksters, hangers-on, and even a dwarf – a tour de force reminiscent of the crowd scenes in Moulin Rouge.

Of course, for all the luxuriousness of the production, La Bohème has a mundane and sordid theme at its romantic heart: poverty. It's what lends the melodrama, set aloft by musical director Constantine Kitsopoulos on Puccini's glorious score, such emotional force. For Rodolfo finds himself attracted to the beautiful young woman who completes his dream of ideal love and repulsed by the all-too-real specter of her premature death, knowing his own poverty contributes to it. As a result, he is racked with fear and guilt. He pulls away from her, pretending to be jealous while confessing the real reason to Marcello in a hauntingly beautiful third act, as Mimi surreptitiously listens in and only then understands she is dying. The lovers finally part in the sweet and painful scene that concludes the act.

Rodolfo's ambivalence gives him a flawed, human aspect that makes his reunion with Mimi before she dies all the more profound. It also traces the gulf between a brutal reality and the loftiest ideals (a gulf used to comic effect in the opening, when Rodolfo and Marcello burn the manuscript of Rodolfo's "masterpiece" to keep from freezing). We even suspect that his desperation in act 3 comes less from foreseeing Mimi's death than from glimpsing his own. Perhaps that's the real source of his guilty conscience.

Admittedly, this dimension remains somewhat muted in Luhrmann's production. Despite Miller's excellent performance, there's something to be said for a Rodolfo played slightly older, on the cusp of adulthood, whose growing sense of his own mortality registers in his frightened rejection of the ailing Mimi. Then again, Luhrmann and Martin's careful staging, including their superb young cast, aims at seducing the widest possible audience with a minimum of aesthetic compromise, and succeeds. No doubt certain breaks with convention – amplified voices, or supertitles translating the libretto into '50s vernacular – will rankle some established opera fans. But even if all the hype about revitalizing opera for a new generation comes to little in the end, who can doubt that La Bohème will land smoothly in New York, where Luhrmann's movies and the Bohème-inspired Rent have already helped pave the Great White Way?

'La Bohème' runs through Nov. 10. Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m., (also Wed., Sat.-Sun., 2 p.m.), Curran Theatre, 445 Geary, S.F. $40-$90. (415) 512-7770, www.ticketmaster.com.