Stark Staging Offers New View Of `Boheme'

OPERA

LIKE an itinerant troubadour, the Boston Lyric Opera takes its rehearsal space where it can find it, practicing in church lofts and dance studios, carting props and scores from location to location. Despite the transitory physical setup, the company returns this year with a solid season and interesting prospects.

Opera companies in this city sometimes carry on like feuding aristocrats, but the Lyric seems to have emerged with a decently organized, creatively balanced, and compact program.

The Lyric Opera opens tomorrow night with Puccini's well-loved "La Boheme," with performances on Oct. 2, 4, and 6 at the Emerson Majestic Theatre here. Stephen Lord, the music director of the Lyric, conducts, with staging by Keith Warner.

Mr. Warner, who is the resident director of Opera Omaha, an adventurous Nebraska company, sat down last week for tea and a discussion of "La Boheme."

"For one thing, the story is grittier" than most stagings suggest, he says. "It's about suffering and free love, and about artistic aspirations." Warner adds that Puccini was attracted to women who suffered, but that his main interest in "La Boheme" was that he "sniffed a good story."

Operagoers who have been seduced by the romantic tale of a poor seamstress who attaches herself to a handful of Bohemian types in a Paris garret, and then dies of consumption, will find a few surprises in the Boston Lyric version - "surprises, not shocks," Warner quickly points out.

Puccini set the opera in the 1840s, between the Victorian and Edwardian eras, which Warner calls "ambiguous." What he and set designer John Conklin envision is more like the 1930s, also a time when people pushed the limits of acceptable behavior. And, instead of recreating the Bohemians' hangout as a truly three-dimensional attic, Mr. Conklin is going to leave hints "calling attention to the artifice," as Warner puts it.

By pointing out the artifice of the set, the director also exposes the posturing of the young men who aspire to be painters, poets, and philosophers. They are playing at living on the fringes, Warner says, and the question has to be asked, "Is the suffering real, or is it staged?"

To carry this a step further, the character Marcello has been updated from painter to photographer. His photos will be scattered around the artists' loft. Apparently the stage will be stark, stylized, and more intimate than the large-scale extravaganzas so familiar to the public.

The reason for the paring down, Warner says, is that Puccini's gloriously elaborate music needs no embellishment. "You can't recreate visually what the composer is doing musically, otherwise it would be sensory overload," he says. The task is to "find the environment that most allows the music to live. We want people to hear how good `La Boheme' is."

* The Boston Lyric Opera season includes: Berlioz's "Beatrice and Benedict" (Jan. 13, 15, 17, 19) and Carlisle Floyd's "Wuthering Heights" (March 10, 12, 14, 16).

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