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Baz Takes on Puccini

SAN FRANCISCO — Who says opera has to be a yawn? Not husband and wife team, director Baz Luhrmann and the set and costume designer Catherine Martin, whose current revival of "La Bohème" is intended for an audience of all ages. Fans...

Act II The “La Bohème” set
SAN FRANCISCO — Who says opera has to be a yawn? Not husband and wife team, director Baz Luhrmann and the set and costume designer Catherine Martin, whose current revival of "La Bohème" is intended for an audience of all ages.

Fans who’ve been thirsting for more of the couple’s kaleidoscopic collaborative efforts got their wish last week when Luhrmann’s version of the Puccini classic began in previews at the Curran Theatre (through Nov. 10). The director said he chose San Francisco because of the city’s receptivity to new ideas. The opera officially hits New York’s Broadway Theatre on Dec. 8.

Luhrmann first directed "La Bohème" in 1990 at the Sydney Opera House, where his modernization of the production caused such controversy that the entire subscription base canceled. But that didn’t deter him from bringing it to the U.S.

Of course, a few things have been tweaked in classic Baz fashion. Paris has been updated from 1840 to 1957 (imagine the postwar Left Bank milieu of Jean Paul Sartre and Coco Chanel) and most of the action takes place in a tiny garret apartment above a busy café-lined boulevard. If this rings familiar for some, much of the aesthetic was borrowed from last year’s "Moulin Rouge," right down to the troupe’s rooftop antics, the moody Paris sky and the huge neon red L’Amour sign just outside the window.

But don’t expect the six young, photogenic singers who rotate in the principal roles of Mimi and Rodolfo to break out into Elton John or Madonna lyrics between arias. Puccini’s score and lyrics remain true, with a few clever subtitle changes using modern-day vernacular.

While Martin’s sets recall the black-and-white photographs of Brassai and Doisneau more than her Oscar-winning dizzying rainbows of "Moulin Rouge," exquisite flashes of color punctuate the production, making C.M.’s (as Martin is known) costumes and sets that much more potent. Mimi’s white coat, worn over a modest purple dress, harmonizes with Rodolfo’s purple duster, which he wears over a black leather motorcycle jacket. Her raspberry beret, a token of Rodolfo’s love, also plays a pivotal role. But the most show-stopping number is Musetta’s red satin corseted cocktail dress (recalling Nicole Kidman’s similarly styled gown in "Moulin Rouge"), in which she licks through the black-and-white street scene like a flame.
For the romantics among us, bohemian Paris also plays a starring role. The busy intersection in the second act (pictured in the set model) serves as a melting pot for all walks of life, from fur and fishnet-clad streetwalkers to elegant English fops to soldiers and nuns, most of whom are clad in shades of black, white and gray.

At every performance, Luhrmann is among the crowd in the 1,600-seat theater, made more intimate by a pasarelle, or walkway around the orchestra pit that allows the singers to stand closer to the audience. Another unorthodox practice: Luhrmann’s decision to leave the scene changes exposed. Instead of the curtain drawing after each scene, the audience sees costumed stagehands elegantly move the café and storefronts across the stage, sprinkle snowflakes onto the singers, straighten their ties and powder their noses.

Opera demystified? Seems more like a legend in the making.