North Carolina Opera presents La Boheme
Memorial Auditorium, Raleigh
Sunday, Jan. 26

There are two questions I always find myself asking after watching a performance by the North Carolina Opera: Was this a creditable presentation for a second- or third-tier U.S. opera company, and was it something I would recommend to non-opera fans? After seeing NC Opera’s production of Puccini’s La Bohème last weekend, the first question was much easier to answer than the second.

We really do have a treasure in the NC Opera company. It regularly brings internationally recognized singers to the Triangle for major roles, while filling occasional roles with talented locals. It mounts at least two very expensive full productions every season, along with multiple semi-staged operas that use minimal sets and costumes to cut costs, which can be as musically powerful as the big events. It’s not afraid of modern works such as Philip Glass’ Les Enfants Terribles, Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw and Duke composer John Supko’s All Souls for soprano, electronics and small chamber group, which it recently gave an amazing premiere at CAM Raleigh in collaboration with New Music Raleigh.

In short, since its rejuvenation in 2010, the level of consistency across the NC Opera productions I’ve seen has been remarkable. Even though its La Bohème didn’t quite match the dramatic tension of 2010’s Tosca, and the vocals never quite reached the heights of the crisp, captivating ensemble work of last fall’s Così Fan Tutte, it was nicely done in a nearly full Memorial Auditorium. The three sets—an artist’s freezing hovel, a café/market and an enormous outdoor gate with falling snow—were gorgeous. The performances were mostly fine, and the opera-loving crowd was obviously satisfied at the end.

So “yes” to the first question: NC Opera continues to provide the valuable service of creditably mounting warhorse operas like La Bohème for local audiences.

After a delightful comic opening, the first act became somewhat tepid, with the voice of Rodolfo (Eric Barry) barely reaching the middle rows during loud orchestral passages. Two supporting singers were particularly engaging: The appearance of the plucky Musetta (Jacqueline Echols) brought the stage back to life in a second act crowded with extras. The role was beautifully sung and broadly acted without being overdone. The same goes for Soloman Howard’s philosopher, Colline. His powerfully earnest “I Must Pawn My Old Coat to Buy Medicine for Mimi” aria inspired the crowd to some of its greatest applause.

The leading roles offered more mixed rewards: Barry sang well, but at times, I didn’t believe his acting. As Mimi, Angela Fout was engaging, particularly in the third act, but the on-again-off-again romance between the pair seemed to get less interesting as she wilted, coughed and died. The depth of thrilling emotion you might expect from one of opera’s most popular love stories wasn’t quite there.

There was plenty for local opera lovers to enjoy, but I’m not sure it would have been a good choice for a first-time opera experience. Part of the problem is the libretto: The delicate balance of oversized mythic power and dollhouse preciousness that underlies most classic operas is tricky to put across to non-opera fans under the best circumstances. La Bohème librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa made too many major events happen during intermissions, so there’s very little dramatic momentum—much less than in a dark, driven gem like Verdi’s Otello.

As I think about inviting non-opera fans to their first NC Opera production, I’ll be looking less at faithful recreations of classics and more toward the company’s atypical programming choices—the upcoming semi-staged presentation of Dvořák’s Rusalka perhaps counts as one of those—as well as its delight in unusual presentation choices and its willingness to experiment. That’s what will bring new opera fans into the fold.