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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the April 23, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
La Boheme’s Bohemians
A few months ago I was standing outside the Broadway
Theater where hot-shot Australian director Baz Luhrmann, braced by
the success of his film musical "Moulin Rouge," staged his
revisionist version of "La Boheme." It had opened to mostly
rave reviews and big business. A friend came up to me and asked,
"Can you believe that there are four versions of the same opera
all playing at the same time?"
There were, alongside Luhrmann’s visually dazzling "La
and "Rent," the pop rock version of the same story composed
anew by the late Jonathan Larson, two productions in the city’s major
opera houses. For purists there is Franco Zeffirelli’s eye-filling
production with a cast of over 200, in the season’s repertory at the
Metropolitan Opera House, as well as the New York City Opera version
updated to World War I. Of course we didn’t take into account how
many Rodolfo’s might be belting out "Che gelida manina" in
smaller companies elsewhere in the city.
Most particularly my friend didn’t think of what was
going on across the river where a fifth production was soon to go
into rehearsal. It must be contagious.
"La Boheme" fever has, indeed, reached (has it really ever
left?) New Jersey, courtesy of the popular Trenton company, Boheme
Opera New Jersey. I doubt if you will hear anyone complain about yet
another production, even though the Boheme company, under the baton
of its artistic director maestro Joseph Pucciatti, staged it only
two years ago. Princeton resident James Marvel will be holding the
dramatic reins on the perennial favorite that will be presented for
two performances at the Patriots Theater at the Trenton War Memorial.
Performances are Friday, April 25, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, April 27
at 3 p.m.
It’s hard to know if anyone has actually complained about too many
"Bohemes" in the past 107 years. That is since Ruggiero
the renowned composer of "Pagliacci," complained to his pal
Giacomo Puccini that he had first dibs on a racy French novel "La
Vie de Boheme," actually 23 sketches contributed by Henry Murger
to the Parisian monthly "Le Corsair" between 1847 and 1849.
That didn’t stop Puccini, who had just scored a huge success with
"Manon Lescaut," from going ahead and finishing his version,
a full year ahead of Leoncavallo. Whether Puccini’s success with
Boheme" was because he got his version to the opera house first
or whether his version was musically superior is another story.
it is Puccini’s version that has, since its premiere in 1896, remained
a staple of the world’s operatic repertory.
Marvel, a 28-year-old Princeton resident, who made his debut with
the Boheme Opera in 2001 with "La Traviata," is returning
to stage "La Boheme," the famed opera that serves as the
company’s namesake. During our phone conversation, I asked Marvel,
in light of all the updating and revisionist productions currently
around, if staging a more reverential "Boheme" offered a
"Because I am a trained actor, as well as a director, the
is making sure the acting is as good as the singing," he says.
Marvel received favorable reviews for his production of
last November at Opera Santa Barbara. Despite certain constants,
must take into consideration working with a different cast and under
"It is the utter simplicity of the story and characters with whom
we can easily relate that make this opera work," says Marvel.
"There is not one wasted note of music or piece of text.
that happens in this opera is essential.
"Almost everybody has a period in their life, usually
when there was very little money and we lived on very little food.
As adults we like to look back and remember it as the time when we
were roguish and living life to the fullest."
Typically set in Paris around 1830, "La Boheme" is a poignant
portrait of Bohemian life and the plight of impoverished artists.
It revolves primarily around two parallel romances: one involving
Rodolfo, a poet, and Mimi, a lace maker; the other involving his best
friend Marcello, a painter, and Musetta, a party girl. Impetuous and
intimate, the opera, despite its mix of merrymaking and melancholy,
is mostly focused on the passions of its principal characters.
With Marvel preparing for what is essentially a
staging, I wondered what he thought of the sudden burst of
approaches to "La Boheme." "There is a place for it,"
he says, citing the one at the City Opera, under the direction of
James Robinson, in which the action takes place in the early years
of World War I. "It’s extremely intelligent. For me as long as
the director is in service to the score and to the spirit of the show,
I have no problem with it."
We also discussed Luhrmann’s theatrically impressive take on "La
Boheme," a production that was first seen in Australia 10 years
ago, in which he updates the story to 1957. It arrived with much
and made noteworthy for having three pairs of rotating principals,
all of whom were graced with movie-star faces and physiques.
"Yes, the voices, although amplified in accepted Broadway fashion,
were also good, but they are legit voices and not really opera
he says. I believe, however, that what makes Luhrmann’s approach to
the opera really unique, is the use of super titles that goes to great
lengths, given the 1957 update, to replace the literal Italian text
with jazzy hepcat slang.
The farthest stretch of the "La Boheme" story comes courtesy
of Larson, who transferred Montmartre to the East Village, replaced
the scourge of tuberculosis with AIDS, and expanded the mise en scene
to include New York’s homeless. "Rent" also treats the lovers
not as victims of a poignant but tragic fate but rather as hapless
characters who are part of a darker and more existential world, one
that holds no romantic illusions to Bohemian life.
Except for a few nods to Puccini, Larson’s stirring
score (when one can hear it above the amplification), is driven by
a hard-edged, unsentimental passion that is, ironically, probably
closer in tone and texture to Murger’s original "Scenes de la
Vie de Boheme" stories. Not surprisingly, the rebellious social
and political attitudes expressed in "Rent" have found favor
with young audiences.
One can draw conclusions from Marvel’s comment that "some
make it all about themselves. I always say that you have four options:
the story of the music, the text, and the subtext. But the fourth,
the most dangerous, is the auteur theory in which the opera becomes
their story. As a result, I change my directing style from show to
Marvel talks about how it is possible to invigorate operas with new
energy and life in a classical setting. In his production of
he says that the relationship between the four guys (he refers to
Rodolfo, Marcello, and their boisterous friends Colline, a
and Schaunard, a musician) is really geared to them having fun. He
tells me to think of the dorm rooms at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.
Expressing his feeling about the musical side of this production,
Marvel says, "After the first rehearsal I knew that Pucciatti’s
musical direction fits perfectly with my dramatic intentions. There
are always a lot of things in the score that are open to
notably the tempo. That is why there are so many recordings of the
same opera. If you are working with a conductor whose musical
is vastly different from your dramatic vision, it can be a problem.
I see no such problem."
It isn’t surprising to learn that Marvel, who received
his B.A. in world literature from Sarah Lawrence and Oxford
and holds an M.F.A. from the International Actor Training Academy
at the University of Tennessee, intends to concentrate on the acting.
There aren’t many opera directors around who can boast that they
as an actor and director in Edinburgh, Scotland; England; Poland;
Hungary; and the Czech Republic and has had many of his critical and
creative writings published in a variety of international literary
journals. "I even had some dance training at Sarah Lawrence,"
says Marvel, about the college that served as a distinct contrast
the all-boy Catholic school he attended as a youth growing up in New
Marvel says he gets the respect from the singers who, contrary to
popular opinion, he says, are "only difficult to work with when
up against incompetence."
"If a singer doesn’t like a particular kind of blocking, I ask
what doesn’t work for you and what do you suggest. I show respect
for them by weighing the alternatives."
He inherited the theater bug from his father, an actor, who now
communication in Tulane’s business school and his mother, a pianist,
and a fourth generation Princetonian.
Marvel talks about his unique idea for the staging of Act III.
Mimi and Rodolfo are seen saying goodbye to each other on one side
of the stage while on the other side Marcello and Musetta are having
a fight. "What I’ve done is to emphasize the distance between
Mimi and Rodolfo by having them on opposite sides of the stage. As
they sing, reuniting and reaffirming their love, they slowly move
towards each other closing in on the fighting Marcello and Musetta,
center stage. This, he feels, will help express the true nature of
"I feel so lucky that Joe and I were able to cast the opera with
all our first choices during auditions," he says. Valerie
a Trenton native, who recently made her New York City Opera debut
in Janacek’s "The Cunning Little Vixen," will sing the role
of Mimi. Thomas Roche, who has sung leading roles in both American
and international opera companies, is Rodolfo. Joan Eubank plays
Russian baritone Maksim Ivanov plays Marcello. Baritone Matthew
plays Schaunard, and bass Ashley Howard Wilkinson plays Colline. A
chorus of 35 singers will also help populate the lively Parisian Latin
— Simon Saltzman
War Memorial, Trenton, 609-581-7200. James Marvel directs. Pre-curtain
talk 90 minutes before each performance. $20 to $55. Friday, April
25, 8 p.m. and Sunday, April 27, 3 p.m.
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