At age 22, Giacomo Puccini was well on his way to becoming maestro di cappella of the Cathedrale di San Martino in his home town of Lucca as his father and four generations before him had done. But he and a friend walked 18 miles to Pisa to see a performance of Aïda, and that, as they say, was that. Puccini’s ambition was turned inflexibly to the stage, to the great gratitude of multitudes of singers, orchestras, conductors, and audiences since then. After Le villi and Edgar came Manon Lescaut, a moderate success, and then the block-buster La bohème, probably performed more often than any other opera in history.

La bohème has been seen in many different productions placing the action in a variety of places and time periods. The opera’s original libretto, prepared by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, places the action in and around Paris – mostly in a somewhat run-down garret – around 1830. Bulging with exquisite and charming melodies, its mixture of humor and grief and Puccini’s uncanny skill at developing story and characters through music makes it ideal as a first opera experience and a gratifying pleasure for the seasoned opera goer.

NC Opera‘s production used sets designed by Peter Dean Beck for Opera Carolina; obviously modeled on Franco Zeffirelli’s Met creation, they were outstanding. The combination of the snow falling in the guardhouse setting in the third act, the lighting, and Puccini’s shimmery music almost made me shiver. The other sets were almost as spectacular. The few left-over flakes of snow that fell at the beginning of the fourth act convinced my wife that there truly was a hole in the roof of the garret.

The stage direction, under the guidance of Crystal Manich, focused on the intimate and personal lives of a tight group of struggling young artists. Many details, such as Musetta kicking up her leg in perfect time with a dramatic musical moment, are signs of purposeful and effective stage direction.

The lighting by Tlaloc Lopez-Watermann was effective in enhancing the comedic, romantic, and tragic aspects of the opera. The period costumes by Malabar, Ltd., were also outstanding. Some of those in the Café Momus scene were spectacular, especially Musetta’s gown here and in Act IV (no doubt due to the generosity of Alcindoro).

A young but deeply experienced cast was led by soprano Angela Fout as Mimì and tenor Eric Barry as Rodolfo, both of whom have sung these roles before, though not together. Fout was a charming and vulnerable Mimì, her pure voice, while clearly capable of soaring, as in “Mi chiamano Mimì,” was mostly tempered to reflect the dying woman she portrays. Barry was a sensitive and impetuous Rodolfo, a little on the light-weight side I thought, but when singing full voice and in the upper register he produced a gorgeous sound.

Soprano Jacqueline Echols was the flirtations and flighty Musetta with baritone Troy Cook as her on-again-off-again lover, Marcello. We were informed before the opera that Cook was somewhat under the weather. He had been medicated and was willing to give it his best, while asking for the audience’s understanding. Indeed it seemed to be touch-and-go at the start, but by the third-act interactions with Musetta, he seemed in fine voice. Echols was a delightful Musetta and her aria (“Musetta’s Waltz”) at the Café Momus was a sparkling highlight.

John E Orduña (Schaunard, the musician), Solomon Howard (Colline, the philosopher) and Kurt Melges (both Benoit, the hapless landlord, and Alcindoro, Musetta’s sugar daddy) all contributed to a finely-tuned production, as did the chorus (directed by Scott McLeod), children’s chorus (led by Frances Page), and assorted entertainers in the elaborate Café Momus scene. Local favorite Wade Henderson sang the vignette role of Parpignol, the toymaker. Sean Currlin and Tom Keefe sang, respectively, the sergeant and the customs officer in Act III.

All of the singers did their best to project effectively in the difficult and cavernous Memorial Auditorium. I noticed that when the action was downstage (closer to the audience) it was easier to hear the voices, especially the intimate exchanges. Only Howard and Echols were able to make all of their entrances come through clearly.

La bohème is an ensemble show, and the cast worked together as though they lived together, but in many ways the opera still owes its emotional punch to the orchestra. Guest conductor Robert Moody is the Music Director of the Winston-Salem Symphony, Artistic Director of Arizona Musicfest, and Music Director of the Portland Symphony Orchestra in Maine. His tempos were crisp and sprightly for the playful scenes and lush and unhurried for the tender moments and splendid set pieces. Despite a couple of minor miscues, the orchestra played splendidly.

The touch of General Director Eric Mitchko and Artistic Director Timothy Myers was evident in every aspect of this production. The house was about 90% full. A production and performance of this quality deserves a “sold out” sign on the front doors.

A repeat performance is scheduled for Sunday, Jan. 26, at 3 p.m. For details, see the sidebar.