We’ll Always Have Paris

Only the most hardened and meanest classical-music critic would take a slam at the Baz Luhrmann production of La Bohème. It frolics at the Broadway Theatre like a happy puppy, and just the fact that it happened at all must be some kind of minor miracle. Opera may not be a total stranger to the Great White Way – for a while, 50 years back, it looked as though composer Gian Carlo Menotti might make his home there – but I can’t recall an operatic classic ever playing on Broadway without being dumbed down beyond recognition.

This the Luhrmann La Bohème does not do. The score is intact and uncut; the singers are operatically trained; the orchestra, while a bit undernourished in the string department, plays what Puccini wrote; the original Italian text is used, although the hip English surtitles bring us up to date (painter Marcello tells us his ass is freezing off, musician Schaunard teaches bebop, etc.); and only die-hard purists could object to the amplification, which is sophisticated enough to be barely noticeable.

Luhrmann has done a bit of tinkering with the piece, but nothing as extreme as what goes on nowadays in some opera houses, where the action is updated from 1840 to just about every conceivable time and place. This one opts for Paris, 1957, perhaps the most recent date that might work (the year after that, the French government started inoculating for tuberculosis, and Mimi might have survived), and except for some now-meaningless topical references in the original text, no harm is done. I saw two of three casts, and everyone is as young and personable as Puccini might have hoped for (not really the innovation Luhrmann seems to think – the City Opera has been casting La Bohème with appealing young singing actors for decades). The voices themselves are unremarkable but perfectly acceptable. I heard no potential Met megastars, but everyone sings attractively and gives 100 percent.

So what we have here, essentially, is a better-than-average provincial La Bohème, not one for seasoned operagoers perhaps, but one that may well appeal to virgin audiences, which is, I guess, the whole point. I think Luhrmann does go overboard trying to keep us entertained – the bohemians’ high jinks in Acts One and Four verge on the manic – but he has added much character detail, especially to the two sets of lovers. Amid the bustle of the Café Momus scene, Mimi gives a little boy a coin so he can buy his toy drum, and later Musetta gives another delighted lad a squeeze and a tickle – tiny moments, so characteristic of these two very different but enchanting girls, and very much in the spirit of PucciniÂ’s concern with life’s piccole cose.

Catherine Martin’s sets are just as detailed and flavorful as the action, a Parisian panorama somewhere between Zeffirelli’s lavish tourist attraction at the Met and the City Opera’s current somber edition, which locates the action around the time of World War I. As at the Met, the bohemians occasionally take us out of their garret for horseplay on the roof, and the crossroads that lead to the Café Momus could not be busier – it would probably require a dozen visits to the show to take in all the activities going on in the shops, bordellos, nooks, and crannies. Opera buffs have seen it all before, and with more distinctive singing. But if this lively La Bohème, a far more legitimate operatic enterprise than all the crooning mock-opera phonies who now clog PBS, can make converts to the real thing, then I hope it runs for twenty years.

The chance to rethink, revise, and tweak a new opera for a second high-profile performance comes to few composers, so William Bolcom must feel like a lucky man. His operatic setting of Arthur Miller’s 1955 play, A View From the Bridge, was launched in Chicago three years ago with great fanfare and to generally favorable press, but instead of being shelved and forgotten – the fate of even well-received new operas these days – the work has just been taken up by the Metropolitan Opera. The Met production, directed by Frank Galati and designed by Santo Loquasto, is the same as seen in Chicago, and the cast remains substantially unchanged. But Bolcom and his librettists, Arnold Weinstein and the playwright himself, have taken the opportunity to make enough alterations in the work to produce what the composer now calls “the New York version.”

There was already much to admire in the first edition. The play has been craftily adapted to retain the drama’s taut structure, and Bolcom has provided an apt and theatrically savvy score in an eclectic, accessible idiom that efficiently underlines the action without getting in the way. What I missed, in Chicago and New York, was music that individualizes the characters, digs beneath the surface, and sings with eloquence – something must be wrong with an opera whose most memorable tune is a borrowed pop song (“Paper Moon”) written in 1915. Most damagingly, Bolcom never really addresses the problem of how to portray a hero as inarticulate and unaware as Eddie Carbone, the Brooklyn dockworker whose fatal attraction to his niece results in his death. In the opera, Eddie exists as a figure with a strong dramatic presence, thanks largely to Kim Josephson’s forceful acting, but one who has no arresting musical definition.Bolcom apparently recognized this and has beefed up Eddie’s part somewhat, but whatever doctoring he has done doesn’t seem to add much detail, perspective, or insight into this troubled character. His wife, Bea, now has more to sing, welcome additions that do fill in the dilemma of a caught-in-the-middle woman whose complex emotions Catherine Malfitano responds to as if grasping at catnip. The fact that Marco (Richard Bernstein) and Rodolpho (Gregory Turay), the immigrant brothers who become the instruments of Eddie’s death, have more interesting music than Eddie himself only further upsets the opera’s center of balance, while niece Catherine (Isabel Bayrakdarian) remains an appealing but conventional operatic ingénue. Perhaps the score’s most original stroke, a telling demonstration of how opera can add extra dimension to a spoken drama, is the commenting crowd of neighbors led by lawyer Alfieri (John Del Carlo), a device that underscores the play’s kinship with Greek tragedy. On the whole, though, A View From the Bridge still strikes me as an honorable failure.

The urge to turn Schubert’s Winterreise into a staged music drama is apparently irresistible, considering how many attempts have been made in recent years. Choreographer Trisha Brown is the latest to take up the challenge, and her version opened this season’s “New Visions” series at Lincoln Center. Since the 24 songs that make up this bleak interior journey to despair and madness are more a collection of expressionistic snapshots than a linear narrative, Brown’s abstract approach is perhaps the most viable one. The representational versions I’ve seen, with our jilted wanderer stalking the wintry countryside like some sort of lovelorn Frankenstein’s monster, never seemed to work out.

The spare, ascetic, but always intensely lyrical nature of Schubert’s songs is respected and genuinely enhanced in Brown’s carefully thought-out visualization, one that makes its points almost entirely through gesture and body poses. The singer, British baritone Simon Keenlyside, interacts with three dancers, but he still remains the central figure. As the sole vocal presence onstage, he seems more isolated than ever in his poignant attempts to join the dance yet never quite fitting in, even though Keenlyside, a trimly athletic singer, can move with considerable grace.Brown has also picked up on many of the textual images in the songs, especially the notion of the singer’s own shadow as his only companion. That idea reaches its climax in the last song as the ominous figure of the shadowy, deathlike hurdy-gurdy man literally obliterates the singer – just one of the many striking coups in Jennifer Tipton’s poetic lighting design. Although Keenlyside needs to be as physically disciplined and involved as his colleagues, that in no way hampers his ability to sing these haunting songs with complete vocal control, a creamy legato, and a full range of expressive vocal colors. Add Pedja Muzijevic’s elegant and supportive piano accompaniment, and this is a Winterreise that repays an attentive ear and a watchful eye.

A Second Opinion
Read theater critic John Simon’s very different take on La Bohème

Classical Music Listings
Classical Music
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La Bohème
The puccini opera, staged by Baz Luhrmann and designed by Catherine Matrin. Broadway Theatre, Broadway at 53rd St., 212-239-6200.

A View From the Bridge
Metropolitan Opera presentation of an opera by William Bolcom, based on the Arthur Miller play. Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, 212-362-6000. Call or visit metropera.org.

The Schubert cycle, staged by Trisha Brown, John Jay College Theater

We’ll Always Have Paris