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Opera Company of Philadelphia adds animated paintings to 'La Boheme'

If the painting is a still life, it won't stay still long - as it morphs beyond its usual frame while on the Academy of Music stage.

If the painting is a still life, it won't stay still long - as it morphs beyond its usual frame while on the Academy of Music stage.

Opera Company of Philadelphia's latest outing with Puccini's La Boheme, opening Friday, may well be a night at the opera and an afternoon at the museum - specifically, the Barnes Foundation and the Philadelphia Museum of Art - rolled into one. The staging concept devised by Italian director Davide Livermore utilizes about 30 paintings from the two museums, all taken from the period when the 1896 opera was written, including Van Gogh's Starry Night and Toulouse-Lautrec's At the Moulin Rouge: The Dance.

"Many times, I put the dramaturgy in another period. But not for Boheme," said Livermore, who specializes in bringing video technology to the opera stage. "I prefer to tell the story . . . with the poetry of the artistic movement around Puccini at the end of the 19th century."

The wild card here is digital animation. Livermore fires up his laptop to demonstrate: Beyond the chilly, messy attic apartment inhabited by the opera's bohemian artists lies a cityscape by Pissaro, specifically Avenue de l'Opera: Morning Sunshine, but with clouds that move and chimney smoke that wafts.

  When the shy, tubercular Mimi arrives in Act I holding sunflowers, Van Gogh's Sunflowers slowly begins to materialize on a rear screen. When she and the poet Rodolfo kiss, the sunflowers turn golden.

On a French impressionist-style seashore, the waves suddenly come to life, heaving and foaming with almost three-dimensional definition. That's one of the few images not drawn directly from a preexisting work of art. "We painted this video in the style of Monet," said Livermore.

Music director Corrado Rovaris and the cast, headed by Norah Amsellem and Bryan Hymel, all seem to be seriously on board with the idea. But Opera Company of Philadelphia didn't initially envision anything so bold for its season opener, which includes a free, big-screen broadcast at Independence Mall on Oct. 6. Many companies keep their Boheme traditional and safe, protecting its status among a handful of eight operatic evergreens that are sure to sell well.

"People new to opera more often come to these eight operas. So we need to do that to keep a lifeblood of new attenders," said David Devan, the general director of Opera Company of Philadelphia. "The challenge is how to make something that's true to the composer's intent but make it exciting and wonderful to those who have seen it before."

And few operas have been seen before so regularly. La Boheme has appeared here roughly every other year since its 1898 Philadelphia premiere, tallying nearly 300 performances. Though the opera's appeal is rooted in its sexy, high-spirited bohemians and melodies that embody the rapture of young love, it also has a high viability factor. Orchestra and chorus are midsize. Good Puccini singers aren't as rare (or as expensive) as good Wagnerians. Also, Boheme is short enough that it easily comes in under the three-hour time limit before stagehand fees go into overtime.

However, the kind of La Boheme that wowed audiences at the Metropolitan Opera 40 years ago, with pudgy singers and plain sets, might not fly now. "The aesthetic expectations of our audiences has accelerated in recent years - tenfold," said Devan. "We have to have high believability standards and high design standards."

Even so, Devan was looking to rent rather than originate a Boheme production. But ongoing discussions with Livermore (who devised the witty, video-heavy production of La Cenerentola in 2006) hatched an idea that had been in the director's head ever since, as a working singer, he performed a minor role in a 1996 La Boheme in Turin.

At the time, says Livermore, the idea of the opera's characters living inside great masterpiece paintings "was a funny joke inside of me," but one that intensified after seeing Akira Kurosawa's magical, visually rich film Dreams. While pitching the idea to Devan, Livermore was also in discussions with Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía in Valencia, Spain, which agreed to split production costs with Philadelphia and create most of the costumes - a cost about $150,000 more than what OCP would have paid for a rental.

Making the deal even sweeter, Devan tapped the Barnes and the Philadelphia Museum of Art for licensing images of their paintings. He describes them as "eager partners" - a particular triumph considering the Barnes' past history of keeping its paintings to itself.

But not every desired painting was able to make its stage debut. "The paintings and their estates all have different rules and arrangements," said Devan. "It depends on who owned them and how they came to be in the collection. Every one has its own set of rules."

Livermore was undaunted: "A limit is not a limit, but a new possibility."

The musicians won't really know what they're working with until shortly before this week's dress rehearsal. Most, though, are relieved that the basic staging won't be anything radical. Amsellem recalls playing Mimi in a production in which she was directed to play Act III falling-down drunk, bottle in hand.

An intriguing idea. "But once you make that kind of choice," said conductor Rovaris, "it's difficult to put the rest together. The score is so well articulated that the moment you tamper with it, it's difficult to make everything else work."

Of all the greatest-hit operas, La Boheme is among the most dramatically detailed, so much that Livermore describes it almost like a storyboard for a film with close-ups and montage effects. But within the precise characterizations, possibilities are endless. "Mimi can be Marilyn Monroe, a drug addict, or somebody very conventional," Amsellem says. "I don't go into my closet and say, 'Oh, I'll pack a little shyness today.' "

One of the worst traps, says baritone Kevin Glavin (Benoit and Alcindoro), is recycling all your moves from past productions. "Then you start doing it for yourself," he said. "I've done this opera with great singers, and you can tell when they're bored. I don't go in with any preconceived notions about how it's going to be."

The ultimate goal: Tears. "I've seen people crying in the orchestra," says Rovaris, "which is very rare in the opera."

That's doesn't happen, says Livermore, when the work's interpretation is an intellectual refraction of itself rather than one that takes the music's power into consideration at every turn. "I don't cry with an intellectual exercise," he says. "I feel the music with my body - my feet, my stomach."

He holds his hands horizontally up to his face, sectioning off his forehead. "This," he exclaims, "is too short!"