(From Naples Daily News, January 28th 2021 edition written by Harriet Howard Heithaus)

This trip to Paris was long and bumpy ride — but so worth the haul.

When “La Boheme” and its valentine to struggling Parisian intellectuals finally came to the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall on Sunday, it was the third time Gulfshore Opera had attempted its debut. “A minor miracle,” General Director Steffanie Pearce said of the luck to recall nearly every cast member from the production, which had already had its first performance at the Charlotte Performing Arts Center in Punta Gorda. And they had to ask that cast back not once, but twice. An autumn alternative date had been set, but the company had to delay it one more time to align with the theater’s re-opening needs.

Externally, this may not have been the “Boheme” of Pearce’s dreams. The same coronavirus pandemic that had stymied its opening twice still exacted strict social distancing requirements.

That meant the theater could hold somewhat less than half its capacity, with seat pairs spaced like checker squares around the hall. The stage aprons would not be used for side conversations; the opera’s orchestra had to move its four woodwinds and brass to both of those and Plexiglas them in. With quick thinking and a donation from Sunshine Ace Hardware, each player was in a transparent, three-sided COVID-deterrent cube.

Its giddy Christmas Eve scene in the heady Latin Quarter had to snip out the children’s playful repartee with Parpignol, the toyseller, to limit the number of people onstage. Even the holiday crowd had to be pared down a bit.

But once the curtain came up, none of that was apparent. Pearce is thorough about production values, and this one easily proved how beautifully Gulfshore Opera could play in a large theater like the Barbara B. Mann.

Set designer Ardean Landhuis took a paint box to sets of Impressionist and Post-impressionist style — think Renoir for its Paris nights and Van Gogh for Rodolfo’s and Marcello’s bohemian garret; his “Cafe Terrace On The Place Du Forum” informs the lively sidewalk setting in Montmartre.

Tlaloc Lopez-Waterman’s projection/ video designs brought puffy snow to the video backdrops of painted Paris winter, perfect for its setting of reconciliation, no matter how short, for Mimi and Rodolfo.

The stars match that quality of detail. Sarah Tucker creates a Mimi that surmounts that impossible blend of both sweet and strong. Her sonorous claim that in her attic dwelling “the first kiss of April belongs to me” brought an extra thrill to the famous first-act aria. She and Peter Lake, as Rodolfo, are duet partners, so good you would pay extra for them to recreate their joyous exit in the fist act, singing all the way backstage and letting the echo waft out over the audience.

Lake has a quick vibrato that just loads extra vulnerability into his voice; his distraught admission in the third act that he pushes Mimi away because he is too poor to save her failing health brought new appreciation to a musically underrated moment. He has yet to develop full power in his voice, but he handles this hall well.

Chelsea Lehnea, the story’s flamboyant Musetta, and Kenneth Stavert, as Marcello, the true starving artist, have all the fun. They’re ever in love, and ever at war with each other. Stavert’s baritone is flawless, and Lehnea sings “Quando me n’vò” with the self-assured tantalization it’s meant to have.

The only two newcomers to the cast, Andrew Pardini as Schaunard and Tyler Putnam as Colline, part of the bohemian fraternity, are happily at home with their roles. And perhaps the Gulfshore Opera Orchestra has always been this good. But you can hear it so much better in Mann Hall, and having Gregory Ritchey with the baton for four years now has given it the defined approach Puccini’s orchestration demands.

The reactions to this opera, and any other events at large halls over the winter, will have to contend with safety regulations as part of their audience’s review. We didn’t want to queue up for a beverage at intermission because the lines were too close; perhaps two more stands would enable better distancing.

And for the nervous patron who felt the seats weren’t far enough apart at their left and right angles, possibly some advance visuals would help future events. This hall — and others in Southwest Florida — could offer a website photograph of its marked layout as the Joan Jenks auditorium has for Studio Players.

It’s the extra effort a production this good — and its venue and audience — deserve.

Harriet Howard Heithaus covers arts and entertainment for the Naples Daily News/naplesnews.com. Reach her at 239-213-6091.

From Naples Daily News, January 28th 2021 edition.