Bohemian rhapsody

Opera - Peter Conrad is infected with the joyful spirit of Baz Luhrmann's festive comedy

''Long live bohemia!" declares one of the projected subtitles in Baz Luhrmann's Broadway production of La Boheme. Never mind that there's no corresponding phrase in Puccini's libretto: the translation makes its own impudent, colloquial commentary on the action of the opera, and this line sums up the spirit of Luhrmann's festive comedy.

All his work is set in bohemia, a garden of licentious delights whose actual location has migrated from the raffish Sydney district of Kings Cross in Strictly Ballroom to combustible Mexico City in William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet before reaching the gaudy pleasure palaces of Montmartre in Moulin Rouge. Now, reviving in New York the production of La Boheme that he first staged for the Australian Opera in 1990, he is returning to his origins.

Though Puccini's garret-dwellers complain about the cold, hunger and the lack of artistic inspiration, they are animated by the whirligig joy that makes all Luhrmann's shows so infectiously manic. They dance, fence, squabble, flirt, splash paint on the walls and stoke the stove with their adolescent poems; bohemia, for them and for Luhrmann, means childhood indefinitely prolonged, terminated only when they are made suddenly, sobbingly aware of death.

The production is updated from the 1890s to the 1950s, so the revelling gang has adopted existentialist fashions: dark glasses, duffel coats, beatnik slang (the impish translation prompts one of them to call Musetta's elderly protector a "square"). A peeling poster of Brando, scowling as the outlaw biker in The Wild One, hangs on the garret door. Despite their moody posturings, it's unlikely that any of them have bothered to read Sartre or Camus. Musetta, the good-time girl, sashaying down the Rue St Andre des Arts in a Dior gown, enunciates their hedonistic philosophy after fondling a gendarme's truncheon: to show off her body, she declares, makes her happy. Tomorrow they may die. Tonight, however, they gorge on creme caramel, buy new clothes, dance in the streets, and leave the baffled "square" to pay the bill.

On the rooftop, a neon sign spelling "L'amour" in letters of flame switches on and burns bright red, like a mouth kissing the murky sky above Paris. Just below it, beneath the ledge on which the glass-walled garret perches, a sculptured angel with bare breasts unfurls a feathery wing: the bohemians are afloat on a cloud, buoyed up in a kind of cushioned, extravagant heaven.

It is all a delusion, and Luhrmann's ingenious, brittle production admits just that. He allows us to watch him performing his magic tricks, conjuring up a spectacle that shimmers for a while and then vanishes into air. His Romeo and Juliet recreated Shakespeare's Globe as a wrecked theatre, stripped down to its proscenium and stranded on a beach; in La Boheme the fantasy is equally transparent. A stage manager gives audible count-downs and shouts "Go!" to kick-start each scene. The singers can be heard vocalising in the wings before they enter, and technicians trundle batteries of lights across the stage or sweep up fallen snow. The highlight of the production is a scene change, carried out in full view: a chaotic mob disassembles the furniture, a grid of extra lights descends, scenic flats are repositioned and, suddenly, to everyone's gaping delight, the starveling attic has become a Left Bank street, bustling with hawkers and hookers, pimps and poets, shriek- ing children and a brass band on patri- otic parade.

The raucous comedy of the opera - assisted by subtitles that read "KAPOW!" and "WHAM!" during the farcical sword-fight, or translate genial abuse into a blitz of typographic symbols - is better served than its erotic morbidity. It takes more lustrous voices and an orchestra less tinny than the band sardined into the Broadway pit to turn your heart over. Luhrmann's three revolving casts sing decently, but they have been chosen for looks not sound. The men inevitably shed their shirts, and Musetta mimics the courtesan played by Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge. The audience of canoodling couples from the suburbs, treating the opera as a date movie, didn't seem to miss the high Cs ducked by Rodolfo and Mimi as they descend to the street at the end of the first scene, so why should I complain?

You can take the production's cheering gospel home with you, in the form of mugs, T-shirts and fridge magnets; the taxi you hail on Broadway after the show will probably be emblazoned with the smoochy Boheme logo. Still, no matter how much memorabilia you invest in, it's not long before the fuzzy glow fades. Screens above Times Square broadcast Bush's latest imprecations about Iraq, and a squad of anti-terrorist police patrols the pavements brandishing machine-guns. Above the doors of the theatre, a banner headline proclaims the motto of Luhrmann's production: "Love conquers all". If only it were true. But you can't set smart bombs to music, or write arias about ricin.

La Boheme is at the Broadway Theatre, New York ( 001 212 239 6200 or www.bohemeonbroadway.com) until 7 September. The cast album is published on CD by DreamWorks Records