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Review by Brad Green:
And you thought it was sad when Ali MacGraw died. Forget all those maudlin, third-rate, pale imitation weepies and welcome to one of the original, greatest love stories ever told. Or indeed sung. Yes, Baz Luhrmann is at it again. Ballroom dancing, then Shakespeare, then fin de siecle French cabaret and now Puccini; does the man have no respect for society’s general resistance to anything beyond contemporary pop culture? La Boheme, Luhrmann style did its first rounds with Opera Australia in the early 1990s, and now it’s a hit on Broadway.

Unfortunately, I never caught the Aussie production; and as my return ticket to New York and access-all-areas Broadway pass inexplicably went missing in the mail, I’m going to have to rely on some second hand intelligence. Sure the CD arrived, but with any Baz Luhrmann production the sounds are only half the picture (so to speak). 

By all reports this production is more musical drama than pure opera. Firstly, there’s that canny Luhrmann knack of updating the milieu and still retaining basic faithfulness--this is no rock ‘n’ roll travesty a la Rent (and it’s worth noting that Romeo + Juliet was a lot closer to the Bard than, for all its extraordinary qualities, West Side Story ever pretended to be). Secondly, the synergy of Lurhmann’s professional partnership with his Oscar-winning wife, designer Catherine Martin, has apparently resulted in the customary production panache. Not one observer has failed to mention how the sets and costumes and lighting glow and dazzle. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, not only was casting predicated on thespian as well as singing ability, but both pictures and the pipeline suggest that the cast have the necessary pulchritude to convince us of love in a cold corridor… at first sight, or at least first touch of frozen (dainty) hand. 

So, why is any of this relevant to the music on CD? Because it alters our perspective. How well I remember the personal impact of the Merchant Ivory production A Room With A View. At that time, in my late teens, I thought opera was about as thrilling as a wet t-shirt contest for sumo wrestlers. But I was captivated by that film; it seemed alive, evocative, throbbing with the romanticism of Florence, the heaving of Helena Bonham Carter’s tightly corseted bosom and yes, the profound beauty of a soundtrack that featured Kiri Te Kanawa bringing out the passion in Puccini. It’s all there in the music alone of course, but somehow it took the loosening of Lucy Honeychurch’s latent sexuality to prime my sensibility. 

There is an established tradition in opera that a rounded girth means a nice round high-C: well then, another plate of pancetta for the primo uomo per favore! Which is all very well for audiences prepared to open their ears and avert their eyes. We should not, however, overlook the fact that one of pop music’s most successful strategies has been to make its melodies more exciting via glamorous presentation. 

Taking such an attitude to opera with complete abandon might be a bigger tragedy than La Boheme’s finale; but there’s no such risk with the savvy Luhrmann at the helm. He knows exactly where to compromise. These are not the world’s absolute, supreme voices; nor do any of them fall far short of that acme. As already mentioned, Luhrmann is both faithful and inventive. Everything is sung in the original Italian, thus preserving the sweetness of diction and inflection; but the performers change from act to act, which brings a dynamic variety to characterisation and musical interpretation. There is delicacy, warmth and charisma in every phrase of every singer, however, the high point comes in Act IV with Jesus Garcia, a young tenor with a remarkable gift for combining precision, stability and smoothness of tone. 

To some degree it is fair to say that this is Puccini-lite. The orchestration is glossy and buoyant, and the majority of the voices incline to the easy listening, Andrea Bocelli style. Everything is contrived to appeal, and laudably so; Puccini indeed is a tacit conspirator--his melodies being among the most readily accessible for opera neophytes. Most of all, no stretch of the imagination is required to picture these gorgeous sounds falling from the prettiest lips. 

My only concern would be if Luhrmann ever brings this approach to Wagner. If he casts a svelte Brunhilde, how will we know when it’s over?

Published May 22, 2003

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TITLE: La Boheme
ID: 397603 360923
MUSIC BY: Giacomo Puccini
ARTISTS: Alfred Boe; Omeed Afsarifard, Ryan Andres, Lara Baez, Mickey Boxell, Eugene Brancoveanu; Ben Davis; Jesus Garcia
PRODUCER: Baz Luhrmann

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