There is a good news/bad news dichotomy when it comes to scheduling works that are wildly popular and have reached “greatest hits” status. The positive side is that it puts bodies in seats. But one downside is that if you screw up, everyone is an expert and tends to be quite unforgiving. La Boheme, the ultimate operatic tearjerker by Giacomo Puccini, is such a work. It is such a universal crowd pleaser that a recent survey showed that 90% of opera companies go no more than three years without re-scheduling it. Piedmont Opera’s production of Puccini’s beloved masterpiece put a body in nearly every seat of the Stevens Center in downtown Winston-Salem and I would be quite surprised if anyone present had even the slightest negative comment. In fact, this was one of the most polished, professional and … well! … perfect productions that I have seen, anywhere, anytime.

La Boheme has it all – comedy, love, sex, betrayal, redemption, death, food, drink, dancing, whining artistic graduate students – and that’s just the story. Add some of the most passionate and memorable music ever written, along with real theatrical touches and you can easily understand its remarkable popularity over the past 100 years and the spawning of highly successful modern versions. 

Although attractive, realistic sets and authentic costumes definitely do not guarantee a total artistic success, they certainly do add an atmosphere of professionalism and a statement that “we are the real thing.” The very high curtain rose on the famous Paris hovel where some of the guys were hanging out – freezing, hungry, horny, complaining, and singing – just your standard twenty-something apartment. The two big male leads, Marcello and Rodolfo, sung by Bojan Knezevic and Brandon Wood, respectively, seemed to have some opening night jitters. My initial impression was one of timid-ness and uncertainty, but that quickly dissipated and their performance grew stronger and more confident. The same can be said for Jill Gardner, singing the lead role of Mimi. It took a little stage time, but her voice and especially her acting soon settled into a complete package which touched the emotions of the packed house.

There are four acts in La Boheme, with the second the busiest as far as staging. On the same stage they presented a café as well as a street fair complete with fire-spewing jugglers, men on stilts, magicians, and a children’s choir. There are many different things going on at one time, but it all seemed natural and cohesive. This is also the scene that contains “Musetta’s Aria” one of the most famous in all of opera, where she basically sings “I’m hot, I love it, eat your heart out.”  Katrina Thurman as Musetta was perfect in both voice and in her depiction of 19th century sluttiness, all the more appropriate for her later transformation to an empathetic, caring person during Mimi’s death scene. With the help of very large, clear supratitles way above the stage we were able to keep track of as many as five conversations going on at once.

Although you could only see his head poking out and sometimes his waving arms, conductor James Allbritten was the focal point of all singers and musicians during the performance and enormous credit should be given to him. He was always clear in his patterns and even from behind I could tell that he was passionate, involved and communicated clearly. The orchestra, consisting primarily of members of the Winston-Salem Symphony, played well beyond just technical perfection – there was poetry and pathos, especially in the blatantly emotive scenes.

This was a production that in every facet would be at least on par with anything done at the Met in New York, the Paris Opera, La Scala, or any other great opera house. The Piedmont Opera may be a regional organization, but this artistic triumph shows it to be second to none. Perhaps this wildly successful outing, both artistically and in ticket sales, might lead to an expansion of the usual three seasonal productions in future years.