The Opera Company of North Carolina (OCNC) chose to close out its tenth anniversary season with a presentation of Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème. This is somewhat of a no-brainer since this opera continues to be on what seems to be an arc of popularity whose apex still is not in sight. Filling the 2,200 seats of Raleigh’s cavernous Memorial Auditorium is no easy task, yet this performance came close, and the audience was rewarded with a world-class production and some surprises before the curtain was even raised. 

In the spirit of community support and opportunity for remarkable young talent, Artistic Director Robert Galbraith presented a you-were-there moment as he presented 11-year-old singer Melissa Edwards in her orchestral debut. She sang the famous aria “O mio babbino caro” from another great Puccini opera, Gianni Schicci. The maturity and refinement of her young voice and her incredible composure led everyone there to the inescapable conclusion that a huge opera career is in store for this young woman. Following that was a testimonial to Al Ruocchio, the recently deceased host of the WCPE Opera House. His entire family was on stage and a Valkyrie-type Viking helmet once owned by Pavarotti was presented to his widow.

So, the 7:30 curtain time became 8 p.m. as the lively opening motif brought us into the humble hovel of a bunch of guys painting, writing, freezing and kvetching about the same things that you would find today: lack of money, food, drink and women. There was a déjà vu feeling to the production as the sets were provided to OCNC by Opera Carolina, which also loaned them for Piedmont Opera’s presentation of this opera in Winston-Salem last year. There seemed to be some harshness and a few microphone “pops” during the opening scene but they were quickly and unobtrusively rectified. John Fowler sang the lead role of the poet Rodolfo, who has an attraction for women who cough their lungs out. The rest of his buddies were Stephen Lusmann singing the baritone part of Marcello, who is an easy target for party girl Musetta, Krassen Karagiosov as Schaunard, and the huge voice of Herbert Perry as Colline.

Lisa Daltirus, in the title role of the doomed Mimi, was a bit too aggressive for a part which is the epitome of wounded confusion. She has a beautifully expressive voice and most impressive were her many heart-wrenching pianissimo upper stratosphere notes. There was also a realistic and effective chemistry between her and Fowler playing Rodolfo. Elizabeth Williams-Grayson, who has graced many local productions, played the part of Musetta – every guy’s combination dream and nightmare bipolar woman. Her famous aria “Quando m’en vo” in Act II, where she revels in the sexual frustration that she causes men, could have been staged in a more licentious manner. Act II is a whirlwind of multi-part vocals and enormous activity which was staged and directed with great skill and aplomb.

The brief romance of Rodolfo and Mimi comes to an end in the often mocked final scene where we witness the redemption of Musetta and the sight and sound of someone singing while dying. Much of the success of a production of La Bohème can be measured by the lump-in-the-throat factor – even tough-skinned macho guys are susceptible to this. I found the third act farewell duet between the lovers to have more pathos and poignance than the death scene, which seemed rushed and mechanical.   

The orchestra was conducted by Francesco Maria Colombo, and he led the superb ensemble in world-class playing of a score that requires an incredible technical and emotional commitment from every musician. The balance was always impeccable, and there were no missed or even ragged entrances.

During his introductory talk, Galbraith made a special effort to acknowledge those who perhaps were there this evening experiencing their first opera. You can’t go wrong with losing your operatic virginity to La Bohème. Artistic creations don’t remain at the top of their genre for more than 100 years for nothing.

Spend this Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m. at Memorial Auditorium for your last chance of this season to see an outstanding cast and production in Puccini’s masterpiece.