On a chilly fall night in the mountains, the Bulgarian State Academic Opera road company delivered a musty La Bohème at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium. It can be argued this characterization is true to the bohemian artist society and augmented pathos the story portrays. But there could be other reasons too. More on that in a minute.

The Bulgarian SAO is the new name for the former Opera Verdi Europa, founded in 1996 by Ivan Kyurkchiev and now touring the United States for the fourth time. The PR is shiny, and they have Columbia Artists Management scheduling the tour – not too shabby. Funded by the Ministry of Culture – at least in part – as an extension of the State public relations effort, the company is a reminder of Bulgaria’s rich musical and operatic history. Following World War I, Bulgarian opera singers and music began taking the worldwide center stage with artists like Stefan Makedonski, Hristina Morfova, Mihail Popov, Mihail Lyutskanov, Boris Hristov, Nikolai Gyaurov, Raina Kabaivanska, Elena Nikolai, and Nikola Gyuzelev. That’s an impressive list.

La Bohème, Puccini’s staple of the operatic repertoire, is in four acts, based on Henri Mürger’s Scènes de la Vie de Bohème, and it has enjoyed a long run. The libretto was written by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, and Puccini’s score was first performed in Turin at the Teatro Regio February 1, 1896, with Arturo Toscanini conducting. According to William Weaver, when Puccini finished writing the score, he was so moved by the death of Mimì that he wept and said, “It was as though I had seen my own child die.” It’s classic Italian writing with emotions on all fronts, and the Washington National Opera production I saw at the Kennedy Center in the mid-90s had memorable flourish and color.

Basically we have a story about artists – a writer, a painter, a musician, and a philosopher – surviving economic and climatic trials in the 1830s. But we also have a love story created during four minutes of the first act which then spends three acts waiting for the woman to die. “[Cough, cough.] Do you love me?” Ya know? Well, it works, certainly, but with the minimalist effort and impression by this company we have a story hampered by a lack of forward thrust. I recall that the WNO production had a wonderful sense of pace. This one, not so much….

The scenery, alternately bathed in blue (cold) and orange (warmer) lighting, was the very definition of sparse and lean. That’s good for a road show, but it often required great leaps of imagination to engage the scene. When the Act I apartment was re-set for Act IV, the heating stove, a central focus in opening scenes, was absent. Oops! Nor did this production quite measure up to Bulgaria’s legacy or the expectations of contemporary hyperbole. The lean pit band, expertly conducted by Bojidar Bonev, lumbered along with a sound and pace more in line with the 1940s, as though we were experiencing a scratchy newsreel or hearing an old 78 r.p.m. record from your parents’ library. Hence that musty, loose, and well worn feel. It suggests either fatigue from a long run or relaxed artistic standards. Or perhaps, “alternative artistic standards.” Yeah, that’s it.

For the record, this eight-member cast is well trained and has stage-caliber voices. No amplification was used, and with only a few exceptions their voices carried into the hall. But then Thomas Wolfe Auditorium is an unfortunate place to experience dynamic arcs, and inevitably some parts got lost. The real gem in this production was Dessislava Stefanova, playing the part of Musetta. Clearly a veteran stage actress, her lusty, coy portrayal and rich voice convincingly carried the part. Fourth in the order of ending stage bows, she was the first to enthusiastically acknowledge the pit musicians.

The day following this performance, I was asked by an audience member what I thought of “the opera.” My immediate reaction was to drink heavily and feign disorientation. But as I reflected on the question, it was clear that the performance had no single flagrante delicto to cite! It simply lacked… – something. It was like the difference between a new bicycle that’s snug, gleaming, has a tight chain, and turns well, and an older one where the chain is loose, the bearings are worn, the handlebar streamers are missing, and the fenders are chipped. It’s not that the show was bad. It just wasn’t great.

It is at moments like this I’m reminded of that question of how we are going to cultivate the new audience for classical music and opera….

Asheville Bravo Concerts is certainly doing its part. Across 74 years in Asheville, they have presented 26 opera productions by 12 different companies including the Metropolitan Opera and New York City Opera. The Boris Goldovsky Opera Theatre appeared five times between 1954 and 1981. English supertitles used for this production were created by New York City Opera, as are most in use today by opera companies all over the world. Beverly Sills spearheaded this innovation in American opera after a trip to China where she observed calligraphy describing stage scenes, projected on vertical columns on either side of the proscenium. We have this new business and theatrical innovation because we still insist on the prohibition against opera sung in our native language.

Go figure.

I heard no cell phone, pager, or wristwatch intrusions. Congratulations Asheville.