Roz Kaveney (rozk) wrote,
Roz Kaveney

Hitting chesty high notes

Baz Luhrman is, more or less, god.

And I don't even much like 'Romeo+Juliet' because I cannot stand DiCaprio, who is almost never a good thing except when, as in 'The Quick and the Dead', he plays a loathsome smug little prick. On the other hand, it does have Ms. C. Danes who is one of my great love objects - 'Igby goes down' - and the drag queen Mercutio. So I suppose it is OK.

But not nearly as good as 'Strictly Ballroom' - 'Crowd-pleasing steps' is one of my favourite lines ever and a useful concept - and 'Moulin Rouge' is one of the closest things I know to a movie made specifically so that I could watch it. Yes, and I know you all think so too, but I am right and you are deluded, so there. MR is a movie that turns me into a mad stalker - especially the Roxanne tango.

And because I am a lucky person and someone up there loves me, I got sent the DVD of Baz Luhrmann's 1993 Sydney production of Puccini's 'La Boheme', which is the one later revived on Broadway, except everyone says it was even better in Sydney. And since it was so wonderfully good, I am not going to argue. Luhrman did not get to direct the video for television, but the tv director spends a lot of time on close ups that put in subtleties that are clearly Luhrman that it does not really matter - this is Puccini adapted by Luhrmann and the video is just a faithful record.

It helps that it goes for young attractive singers rather than big names in their late thirties - the voices are fresh and the faces cute. It also helps that he sets it in the 1950s - think 'La Dolce Vita' - and so the frocks are fabulous. And of course it also helps that it is one of the most beautiful and accessible operas ever written - just tune after tune after tune that feels like you have known them all your life.

Now, I know some of you will be saying, 'Opera? Feh' but I will say to you again, Baz Luhrmann, at the top of his game.

And I will also say, slashtastic, because this is one of the slashiest productions of opera I have seen ever - and most of the others are ones which actually have breeches parts in them and butch sopranos and mezzos slapping their thighs at each other. (Which can be pretty hot, actually, especially when the music is decadent early C20 or oh-so-civilized C18 rather than boisterous early C19 - but more on that some other time.)

The six main characters of 'La Boheme' are four flatmates - and Luhrmann makes the two male sidekicks, Schaunard and Colline, very clearly a couple - and the girlfriends of the other two. Mimi is the nice girl from upstairs who pops round to borrow a cup of sugar and gets swept off into the wild life of jolly young artists, and especially Rodolfo, boy one; Musetta is the high-class tart who is on again, off again with Marcello, boy two. It is cold and Mimi coughs a lot - so they decide to pack her off with Musetta to sleep with rich men and keep warm - but she gets sicker and dies with everyone crying over her.

It is clear, in his version, that Marcello and Rodolfo are fooling themselves a bit - their love is so pure, not. It is also clear that there is an interesting vibe going on between Mimi and Musetta. Oh yes, Musetta takes her away to keep her warm by sleeping with rich punters; we have all been there and done that - well, maybe we haven't - but suffice it to say that one of the advantages of getting your crushes to turn tricks with you is that you get to get paid for having sex with someone you love.

A lot of this is done through trademark Luhrmann lingering glances, but the weird thing is, and remember this is an opera I know really rather well, that he almost convinces you that it is in the music. In Act Two, they are all hanging out at a cafe, eating dinner and working out how to run out on the bill. Musetta is there with a punter and playing up to Marcello, while pretending to ignore him. Colline and Schaunard - the latter in a fetching yellow suit and borsalino- are bitching from the sidelines about how funny it is. Rodolfo is busy trying to explain to his new squeeze who everyone is.

And Mimi keeps going on and on about how unhappy Musetta must be to be wearing such nice clothes and to be singing such a very loud waltz song - yeh, right. It does not take many tLlgs before you start thinking - this Musetta and Mimi are flirting the fuck out of each other completely over the heads of these boys.

And the het stuff is sexy and cute too - Musetta and Marcello end up duetting on her waltz while not speaking to each other, and then she sends the punter off to get new shoes for her - and the music dies away to small string chords except for her and Marcello singing on in each other's arms. Then a military band goes past and they follow it, leaving the punter with the bill; Lurhmann gets the stage business just right so that his face falls at the size of it on the very last chord.

It is a great Luhrmann show and it might make you love at least one opera.

The other weird thing about 'La Boheme' - actually there are several, one of which is that Puccini's friend and rival Leoncavallo was working on an opera of the same title, based on the same book, at the same time. And it is good too, but never quite hit popularity, unlike Leoncavallo's 'I Pagliacci' which is one of those other operas full of stuff that people actually know, but don't know they know. (There is a wonderful Spike Jones song about two country fans who go to the wrong Opry in Nashville - 'We saw Pagliacci/just because it was raining', but I, as usual, digress.)

Both operas are based on Murger's 'Scenes from Bohemian Life', a sort of novel/memoir from the 1840s or so- actually it is fairly crappy, as far as I can tell, though I only read it in translation. Mimi and Musetta were, once upon a time, real women, whose lives got turned into exploitation journalism, and then into high art. Millions have cried over the third level versions of them who never think about the fact that Mimi was once a real dead girl.

And that's because we are all sad people who didn't have enough love in our childhoods. And that's show business. As Roxie Hart says - god, was there a real Roxie Hart? What a worrying thought. I once or twice met a woman whose mother was the original of Sally Bowles.

Maybe in the end, we all get to be fictional characters. I sometimes fear I am. When things were pretty messy at one point in my life, Neil said 'I don't much reckon this new script editor they've got doing your storyline'. And that is obviously the secret of success - get a good script editor running you behind your back. Or failing that, a good orchestral score and a throaty mezzo to take your place.
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