In a time when opera barely hangs on in the Triangle, when the long established Greensboro Opera is undergoing a temporary stage-production hiatus, and when Piedmont Opera Theatre has issued pleas to preclude drops in donations, it was heartening to read that due to the demand for tickets for Opera Carolina’s run of Puccini’s ever popular La Boheme had led to the addition of a fourth performance. There were very few empty seats at the last outing, given in Belk Theater on the afternoon of April 18. The Hearst Corporation sponsored “student ‘night'” (at the matinee…), and a large number of all ages were present. Between its website and preview programs across the city and in the schools, the company has proven unusually successful in audience development.

As the painter Marcello, baritone Frank Hernandez brought a hearty and robust voice that easily filled the hall at normal dynamic levels. He perfectly captured the full range of his character, from hale and hearty to furious with jealousy. Indeed, next to the loud ebullience of Hernandez, tenor Fernando de la Mora, whose voice at first sounded much smaller, gave me a brief moment of doubt. However, he quickly warmed up, revealing a fine timbre, even range, and solid highs. Most important, he brought a welcome sensitivity and depth of feeling to the role, starting with his meeting Mimi in the garret and extending through their troubled relationship on the outskirts of Paris (in Act III) to the heart-wrenching, tragic ending when she dies. He brought an ideal blend of technique and fully communicated his character’s feelings.

As Mimì, Carol Ann Manzi deployed a full and even soprano of considerable strength. Her voice easily filled the hall even in her death scene, where more shaded tones might have been more apt, dramatically. Her interaction with all the other characters was convincing.

It took me a while to adjust to the sound of soprano Karen Driscoll as the flirtatious Musetta, since the role is often taken by mezzo-sopranos. In this production she had a drinking problem as well as a wandering eye. Driscoll’s diction was clear, and she portrayed a wide range of behavior from a frivolous coquette to a deeply concerned friend.

As plangent bass Jamie Offenbach, in the role of the philosopher Colline, sang his aria, which mourned his parting with his coat, I could not suppress a suggestion of Boris Godunov in angst – but over a trifle. Terrance Murphy brought a fine and even tenor voice to the role of Schaunard, a musician. Bass Donald Hartmann did all that could be done with the character roles of Benoit, the Bohemian’s landlord, and Alcindoro, Musetta’s “wealthy gentleman friend.” To the role of Parpignol, the toy vender, David Broadus Hamilton brought a tenor voice more than several rungs above the merely serviceable voice customarily heard in such character parts. His was the sound of a singer on the way up rather than of someone with a remnant fit only for bit parts.

Imperfections reported in a local preview had disappeared from the well-balanced and expressive performance of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra. The strings underpinned Puccini’s gorgeous melodic lines beautifully, and there were fine solo contributions from Concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu and Principal Cellist Alan Black. All sections of the orchestra made positive contributions, too. Conductor James Meena maintained tight ensemble between the pit and the stage and avoided any hint of false sentimentality. The members of the Opera Carolina Chorus and the Charlotte Children’s Chorus were effectively integrated into the dramatic Café Momus scene in Act II.

Stage Director Linda Browsky took maximum advantage of her lively and agile cast. The horseplay among the Bohemians is pretty traditional, but the comic scene with the landlord Benoit was more specific and effective than usual. The street scene in Act II was packed with crowds of people and lots of stage business, but the scene was subtly thinned as needed to focus on the principals at the restaurant. However, one bit of business gilded the lily – an extra, dressed as a woman in rags, filched a prodigious number of packages from under a nearby table while crucial scenes between the Bohemians and Mimi and Musetta were taking place. Otherwise, Browsky’s direction was dramatically convincing.

The sets and lighting designed by Peter Dean Beck were splendid. For once, the garret was a believable space, not a vast, cathedral-like attic room. A simple drop curtain, lit with great sensitivity and ingenuity, managed to suggest views of the rooftops of Paris and of the changing sky.