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FROM THIS EPISODE

Baz Luhr-me
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Verismo is the Italian word for realism and 1896 that-s what Puccini-s opera about starving Parisian artists was considered. These days, La Boh-me is often seen as refined, upper-class entertainment, with millionaire stars singing on opulent, over-designed sets. But a hundred years ago, Boh-me was something of an upstart, part of a growing movement of Italian composers who wanted opera to tell the stories-not just of Kings, Queens, and other love-sick noble persons-but of everyday people.

Flamboyant film director Baz Luhrmann seems like an unlikely person to bring Puccini-s opera back to its realistic roots, but that-s exactly what he-s done with his Broadway version of Boh-me which opened last week here in Los Angeles.

This is not to say that Luhrmann has abandoned the high camp, supercharged sense of spectacle that he brought to movies like Romeo & Juliet and Moulin Rouge. Make no mistake, his Boh-me looks and sounds like his lavish and loud films, but at its heart, Luhrmann-s staging yearns to re-introduce audiences to the simple pleasures of young people singing about love.

Rather than international opera stars, Luhrmann has cast the musical with a rotating ensemble of attractive young singers. None may have the golden tones of Placido Domingo or Renata Tebaldi, but they do have the advantage of looking the part. (The sight of an old, fat Pavarotti playing Rodolfo, the starving poet, did more to damage La Boh-me-s realistic elements than decades of chintzy productions.)

Luhrmann sets his young singers against a backdrop that is not Paris of the 1830-s (as the libretto calls for) but rather what the super-titles describe to be a stylized version of the late 1950-s. Actually much of the production looks as if it takes place at The Grove on a busy Friday night, but why quibble about period details-the true setting of Luhrmann-s Boh-me is a mythical Montmartre of the mind-complete with clowns, drag queens, dwarfs, Sacre Coeur, and of course a gleaming red sign that reads -L-Amour.-

Despite its anachronisms, it-s hard not to like Luhrmann-s vision. Yes, the stage is stuffed with action and movement; but when you look closely, most of it is motivated by the characters and the story.

The elaborate Act II finale at Caf- Momus certainly impresses, but many opera houses have big set pieces for this famous scene. What this Boh-me captures-that few other productions do-are the moments in-between the big arias and chorus numbers. In the hands of non-acting singers and opera hacks, these passages can feel like filler; but Luhrmann makes them come alive. The best examples of this are the interactions of the four young Bohemians: Rodolfo, Marcello, Colline, and Schaunard-their carefully choreographed scenes feel as natural as friends hanging out watching football.

The only parts of this Boh-me that don-t really soar are the arias. The singers hit the notes and Puccini-s music always delights, but for some reason the famous crests of the score didn-t have the emotional impact that they often do.

The reason for this is that the soloists (at least the ones heard by these ears) were strong singers, but not quite up to the monumental feat of interpreting the delicate nuances of an operatic number. This may seem harsh, but it takes years, often decades to master the dramatic and vocal techniques that make an aria feel not just like a catchy tune, but a direct line to a person-s soul.

This is the eternal conundrum with Boh-me: young singers look convincing but sound immature, old singers look silly but sound true. In the big ensemble scenes, insightful, frenetic direction masks this; but when it-s just a soloist and the music, there-s nothing Luhrmann can do.

But even if this La Boh-me may not always work as an opera, it is an incredibly successful piece of musical theater. The cast is energetic, the staging is effective, and everyone leaves whistling Puccini-s infectious melodies. Yet the qualities that allow for this Boh-me to be seen eight times a week are the same ones that keep it from being the once in-a-lifetime experience that devoted opera fans are always searching for. Still, Luhrmann-s Boh-me has much to offer and while it may have imperfections; verimso without rough edges is simply unrealistic.

La Boh-me runs through March 7 at the Ahmanson Theater.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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