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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

Boheme,"

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

Leoncavallo,

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

"La

Boheme" was because he got his version to the opera house first

or whether his version was musically superior is another story.

Nevertheless,

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

15-year-old

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

special

challenge.

"Because I am a trained actor, as well as a director, the

challenge

is making sure the acting is as good as the singing," he says.

Marvel received favorable reviews for his production of

"Boheme"

last November at Opera Santa Barbara. Despite certain constants,

Marvel

must take into consideration working with a different cast and under

different conditions.

"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.

Everything

that happens in this opera is essential.

"Almost everybody has a period in their life, usually

20-something,

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

traditional

staging, I wondered what he thought of the sudden burst of

director-driven

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

fanfare,

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

trained,"

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

directors

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

show."

Marvel talks about how it is possible to invigorate operas with new

energy and life in a classical setting. In his production of

"Boheme,"

he says that the relationship between the four guys (he refers to

Rodolfo, Marcello, and their boisterous friends Colline, a

philosopher,

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

interpretation,

notably the tempo. That is why there are so many recordings of the

same opera. If you are working with a conductor whose musical

interpretation

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

University,

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

worked

as an actor and director in Edinburgh, Scotland; England; Poland;

Slovakia;

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

Orleans.

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

teaches

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.

Generally

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

the scene.

"I feel so lucky that Joe and I were able to cast the opera with

all our first choices during auditions," he says. Valerie

Bernhardt,

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

Musetta.

Russian baritone Maksim Ivanov plays Marcello. Baritone Matthew

Singer,

plays Schaunard, and bass Ashley Howard Wilkinson plays Colline. A

chorus of 35 singers will also help populate the lively Parisian Latin

Quarter.

— Simon Saltzman

La Boheme, Boheme Opera, Patriots Theater at the

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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