A new approach to Puccini’s “La Boheme,” one of the most popular operas of all time, would seem almost impossible. Artistic director Dona D. Vaughn managed to pull it off on Wednesday night’s opening night of the PORT- opera production at Merrill Auditorium.

The result is one of the best performances of the opera that I have ever seen. It should not be missed.

Her staging has the semi-Cubist flavor of the Paris of “A Moveable Feast.” The characters could be out of “Friends,” if that TV legend was full of very intelligent and witty people doing important things in poetry, art, music and philosophy with good humor, in spite of poverty and the shadow of death.

I mention “Friends” only because Vaughn attempts, quite successfully, to give the opera a more contemporary feel, especially in terms of character development, without altering Puccini’s libretto.

In this she has the full cooperation of conductor Israel Gursky and the orchestra. As in Vaughn’s production of “Madame Butterfly,” the orchestra delineates both character and setting — plus giving the drama its emotional punch — to a much greater extent than is generally realized. A pause can become the most expressive part of any musical passage.

It also helped to have wonderful young singers, such as soprano Michelle Johnson as Mimi and tenor Jeff Gwaltney as Rodolfo, who can act as well as sing. The combination of superb voices and nuanced emotion makes their first meeting, and the rapturous duet, “O Soave fanciulla,” almost as moving as Mimi’s death, for which scene one had better bring plenty of tissues.

The secondary characters are also more rounded than usual. Baritone Edward Parks, as Marcello, serves the function of a Greek chorus, commenting on the action, as he did in “Madame Butterfly,” in the character of the American consul Sharpless.

Soprano Alyson Cambridge, who played Donna Elvira in PORTopera’s “Don Giovanni,” was brilliant as Musetta, providing the perfect foil of coquetry to Mimi’s tragic love.

Seeing the opera as a dramatic whole only serves to highlight its many favorite arias, most of which earned “bravos.” 

Equal credit should be given to scene designer Judy Gailen whose cubist sets are almost as good as a Braque painting and lighting designer Christopher Akerlind who performs miracles of atmosphere.

All of the extras were thoroughly rehearsed with precise stage directions.

In the Cafe Momus scene, the child begging for a toy sounds just like the frog voice which ends Janacek’s “The Cunning Little Vixen.” Coincidence? Knowing Vaughn’s cleverness and experience, I don’t think so.

Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at:

classbeat@netscape.net