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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 12/20/02

La Bohème
1993 (2002) - The Australian Opera (Image)

review by Adam Jahnke of The Digital Bits

La Bohème Program Rating: B-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/B-/D-

Specs and Features

112 mins, NR, full-frame (1.33:1), Amaray keep case packaging, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 54:28, between chapters 17 and 18), animated film-themed menu screens with music, scene access (33 chapters), languages: Italian (DD 5.1 & 2.0), subtitles: English

Filmed or videotaped recordings of live performances are a mixed blessing at best. On the one hand, any live performance is a transitory experience. Not everyone was lucky enough to see the original cast of The Producers on Broadway or a benefit concert with an all-star lineup of music legends. When done well, a recorded performance can result in something truly spectacular that brings a once-in-a-lifetime event to a wider audience. Take, for instance, Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz or Volker Schlondorff's Death of a Salesman with Dustin Hoffman.

But on the downside, as any actor or musician will tell you, a live performance is a very different animal from a film. It doesn't matter if it's a play or a concert or an avant-garde bit of performance art featuring nude dwarfs and a shrieking baboon. There is something about being there, watching it as it happens, that simply cannot be captured on film or tape no matter how skilled the people behind the camera might be. Image Entertainment's DVD of Baz Luhrmann's production of La Bohème demonstrates both the ups and downs of trying to capture the moment.

Filmed live in front of a packed audience at the Sydney Opera House, La Bohème is immediately recognizable as coming from the director of Moulin Rouge. If the electric, primary-colored costumes by Luhrmann's wife/collaborator Catherine Martin don't tip you off, then the giant red neon sign that reads "L'Amour" should probably clue you in. Baz Luhrmann is probably the most incurably romantic director working in film today, so he's a natural to adapt Puccini's floridly romantic opera. Opera buffs concerned that Luhrmann has filled Puccini's work with the kind of hyper kinetic, post-modern touches that he's notorious for needn't worry. While the time has been updated from 1830 to 1957, Luhrmann doesn't have his choruses singing Nirvana songs behind the arias. The story still follows the doomed love affair of starving writer Rodolfo (David Hobson) and the beautiful Mimi (Cheryl Barker). By the way, I don't think I'm spoiling anything for anybody by saying the affair is doomed. To quote the esteemed music critic Bugs Bunny, "What do you expect in an opera? A happy ending?"

Luhrmann's production recently premiered on Broadway to overwhelmingly positive reviews, suggesting it will probably be there for awhile. But if you can't make it to New York, don't expect this DVD to totally replicate the experience. Video director Geoffrey Nottage does his best to make this more than a photographed stage play, employing close-ups, Dutch angles, and cutaways. But there's still something missing. Partly it's the thrill of hearing these voices live. But it's also the immediacy of the moment and the contagious energy on stage. No doubt seeing the Latin Quarter come to life at the beginning of Act Two is an amazing spectacle on stage. At home, it's simply a screen full of bodies and that's something we've all seen time and time again.

Perhaps if the audio on the disc were more exciting, the DVD would be a more adequate substitute for the real thing. Presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, the vocalists are confined to the front and center channels, leaving the rear stage open to the orchestra. The effect is reasonably immersive but far from spectacular. Of course, this production was recorded for Australian television almost ten years ago. I'm fairly certain the audio quality is as good as possible without undergoing a major remix or, even worse, a complete re-recording dubbed over the image. However, it isn't demonstrably better from my CD recording of La Bohème. A straight 2.0 option is also offered for those without a 5.1 setup.

The video quality is quite good. Recorded on videotape and presented in its original TV ratio of 1.33:1, the brightly colored costumes are dazzling. The colors gradually drain away as the story progresses, but even darkly lit scenes (such as most of Act Three) are captured with fine detail. This isn't High Definition video so it won't redefine the way you look at the world but for what it is, it looks awfully good. Extras are slim, limited to optional English subtitles and a generous amount of chapter stops.

If you're an opera connoisseur or a Baz Luhrmann completist, perhaps you'll enjoy this disc more than I did. Those with a more casual interest, however, will likely be left wondering what all the fuss is about. To really find out, I recommend getting tickets to La Bohème if you happen to be in New York City. The DVD serves mainly as a sampler to whet your appetite for what promises to be a truly enjoyable night of live theatre. If nothing else, Baz Luhrmann's La Bohème, either live or on disc, is abut a zillion times better than watching Rent.

Adam Jahnke

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