"The World's Most Beloved Opera" is how the ads refer to Utah Opera's season-opening production of "La Boheme," bowing Saturday, Oct. 14, at 7:30 p.m. at the Capitol Theatre.

It's certainly Utah Opera's most beloved opera, this being the fourth time the company has mounted the Puccini love story in 18 years, when it led off its first season at Kingsbury Hall. That's more often than "Aida," "Carmen," "Butterfly," "Tosca" or even "The Barber of Seville."It's also more often than had been planned.

"Originally our plan was to open with `La Traviata,' " confesses Utah Opera general director Anne Ewers. "Then, when we learned Utah Festival Opera was planning to do it this last summer, we did not want to collide."

They also wanted another favorite with which to bracket this season's centerpiece, the state centennial commission "Dreamkeepers," to premiere Jan. 13-21. Then, Ewers says, "when we realized this would be the 100th-anniversary season of `Boheme' and the 180th of `Barber' " (which will round things off Feb. 24-March 3) "we kind of liked that tie."

But the company's troubles weren't over. In late August, four weeks before rehearsals were to begin, the originally announced stage director, Jay Lessenger, bailed out, reportedly saying he had no interest in doing "Das Boheme" - a reference to the prevailingly dark air that is said to hang over this production.

"Basically he didn't like the concept," Ewers acknowledges, "something he could have spoken out on even in the design stages. But he didn't respond until construction had started."

Thus director Francis Cullinan - himself a veteran of two Utah Festival Opera productions, 1994's "Fanny" and this year's "She Loves Me" - was on his way back to his home in Cape Cod, following a double bill of Kurt Weill and Douglas Moore at Lyric Opera of Kansas City, when his agent contacted him about stepping into the "Boheme" breach. And rather than being put off by the late notice, he says he found the challenge invigorating.

"I was intrigued by the fact that it was a new physical production," he says of Robert Brill's stage designs. "Also, it had a first-rate cast and a first-rate conductor" - a reference to returning maestro Anton Coppola. So around the first of September Cullinan found himself inundated with floor plans, rehearsal schedules, property lists and the like. And what does he think of the design concept that caused his predecessor to bow out?

"Well, the audience won't be seeing the kind of literal 19th-century representations of the settings we are used to," Cullinan says, "be it the garret, the cafe or the gate on the outskirts of Paris. Rather they will be seeing fragmentary, photo-realism-type scenic impressions, almost like they had been cut from photographs."

As for the prevailing darkness, he acknowledges the colors tend to be somber. "But most of the story occurs at night, either at sunset, late evening or predawn to dawn. So we're not dealing with a bright palette anyway."

He especially likes the contrast between the moonlit romance of Act 1, where Mimi and Rodolfo meet, with the coldness of their snowy, predawn exchanges in Act 3 and Mimi's death, just before daybreak, in Act 4. "Earlier she has told us she lives for that moment, when the first sun of spring breaks, and the dramatic irony is just stirring."

Even so, Cullinan admits that he probably wouldn't have jumped in if it hadn't been an opera with which he was already familiar.

In his case that familiarity goes back to 1958, when he saw Renata Tebaldi and Franco Corelli as the doomed lovers at the Metropolitan Opera. "Earlier, as a college student, I had been dragged to a performance of `Pellas and Melisan-de,' also at the Met," he recalls. "But I stayed awake through this one, and it certainly increased my interest in opera as theater."

Previously that had been Cul-linan's prime interest, his specialty following college and graduate school being period comedies up to and including Noel Coward. "And those were the kinds of operas I was asked to do at first, too," he says, "things like Gilbert and Sullivan and Donizetti. But after two or three `Elixirs of Love' I was asked to do `Lucia,' " and the rest followed.

Today Cullinan still divides his time between opera and straight theater. But this will mark his fourth "Boheme," with another to follow later this season in Tulsa. In that time, he has come to regard Puccini as "first, last and always an intrepid man of the theater," something that shores up his own resolve not to interfere with that vision.

"I hope ultimately the production speaks for me," Cullinan says of the finished product audiences will see Oct. 14-22. "But I never try to put like my stamp on a play or an opera. When I'm working with a great playwright or a great composer, I'm very happy to let them carry the ball, with my intention being to try to illuminate that the best I can."

That's pretty much Anton Cop-pola's view of Puccini as well. "He is perhaps the most theatrical composer of them all," the conductor declares, "in that he knows precisely what he wants you to do at certain moments, even to telling you the precise moment he wants the curtain to come down."

Therefore what he tries to bring out are the qualities and contrasts so judiciously balanced in the score - "sometimes rollicking, humorous, boistrous, then of course those suave lyric lines and sublime moments for which he is justly famous. It's perhaps his most perfect opera."

At the same time, he says, "I hope we can bring something very personal to this." Coppola himself has lost count of the "Bohemes" he has led over his lengthy career. But as opposed to the last one, six months ago on Long Island, he says this time he'll have a larger orchestra - the Utah Symphony - "so I'll be able to indulge in moments I didn't feel I could indulge in there. I can emote a little more.

"Also the director is different, and what he did certainly affected what I did, and so are the singers."

Even with the same cast, Coppola acknowledges, things are likely to change from night to night over the course of a run, "if for no other reason than one is in the evening and another is in the afternoon. And of course even within the specified tempi I intend to follow, that will vary because the actor himself will find he wants to linger a little more on one note. Which we might not have intended, but you deal with it - if you have the experience to deal with it."

Tenor Jianyi Zhang, who makes his Utah Opera debut as Rodolfo in this production, Coppola already knew from a Juilliard production of "L'Amico Fritz" five years ago and a concert of opera arias the two took part in with the Pittsburgh Symphony a year later.

"I was so delighted," Coppola says of the latter. "After the `Una furtiva' I turned to the audience and said, `Do you still think he's Chinese? Don't you think he's Italian?' He was just brilliant."

Nevertheless Zhang is Chinese - from Shanghai - and one of the fastest-rising lyric tenors around. In 1987 Gian Carlo Menotti directed him at Juilliard in his own "Amelia Goes to the Ball" - the tenor's first complete role anywhere - and subsequently offered him roles at Spoleto and Rome Opera. In 1988 he won the grand award in the Pavarotti International Vocal Competition and next season will make his Met debut in Gounod's "Faust."

Right from the beginning, Zhang says, "I think my voice liked the Italian repertoire." But he and his manager have been careful to protect him from the kinds of heavy roles Menotti had in mind - Luigi in "Il Tabarro" and des Grieux in "Manon Lescaut" - favoring instead the lighter lyric roles that he hopes "will help me keep my career longer."

Accordingly he sang his first Rodolfo in 1987, in Santa Barbara, followed by 11 others in such far-flung locales as Stuttgart, Lyon, Nice, New York and San Antonio - the last a semi-staged production conducted by Christopher Wilkins.

The Utah Opera "Boheme" reunites him with the Mimi of that production, soprano Rosemary Musoleno, whose own career is on the ascent. In addition to an expanding recording career, she made her San Diego Opera debut as Musetta in "La Boheme" last April and is scheduled to sing Mimi again in February with the Oklahoma City Philharmonic.

"I do them both," the Juilliard-trained Musoleno says of the two "Boheme" soprano roles, "but if I had my choice, my heart is with Mimi. I mean, Puccini outdid himself in her music - the phrases are just to die for. And the character, the emotions, are all there in the lines, the music and the words.

"We worked our way through Act 3 yesterday," she says, "and it was so moving because Maestro Coppolo would come up and give you his views of the music and the translation, which he knows so well. In terms of what is going on between Mimi and Rodolfo and Musetta and Marcello, in my opinion I have never played it so simply and so honestly. And I think that's how it's going to come across to the audience. Even if you don't know Italian, it's so easy to feel and see what is happening onstage."

In this production - in which scenery and props are co-owned by Utah Opera and Minnesota Opera - the opera will be sung in Italian with English Supertitles. Katherine Terrell will sing the part of Musetta, with Brian Davis as Marcello, Ryan Allen as Colline, Robert Sapolsky as Schuanard and Shawn Roy doubling as Benoit and Alcindoro.

Costumes are by Susan Memmott Allred and lighting by Nicholas Cavallaro. The chorus has been prepared by Bonnie Koestner.

"La Boheme" will be presented Oct. 14, 16, 18 and 20 at 7:30 p.m., with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday, Oct. 22. Currently all performances are sold out, but turnbacks may be available. For information call 355-2787.

In addition a free "OperaBites" symposium featuring the stage director, conductor and other production-staff members will be pre-sented Thursday, Oct. 12, at 12:15 p.m. at the theater. Call 323-6868 by Tuesday, Oct. 10, to order a box lunch for $5, or bring your own.