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Well, the weather gods smiled on the Opera Company of North Carolina on a Saturday night, and it's a good thing, too, for several reasons: the rain venue that they'd lined up seats only 425, so there'd have been some very unhappy patrons, had the program been moved away from the NC Museum of Art's outdoor stage; instead, thanks to the cool air, the low humidity, and a slew of last-minute ticket buyers, the huge crowd may have come close to matching the combined total of the company's previous best run, in Memorial Auditorium. The event was presented as part of the NCMA's Arts in the Museum Park summer series. Unfortunately for the OCNC, which is one of Raleigh's three opera companies* (all of which are cash-strapped), that crowd was mostly in the cheap seats sections. The response was enthusiastic, however, and the performances were, consistently, quite commendable. Strangely, there were no pleas for donations — and no suggestions that attendees might wish to hear the company indoors, at some point.
The event was billed as "Casual Classics: Opera and Broadway," so the lineup was from both camps — the first half was devoted to a bit of this and a bit of that from operas, mostly, by Hérold, Rossini, Puccini, Wagner, Verdi, Bizet, and Gounod, and the second, to works from the Great White Way, mostly, by Bernstein, Lerner & Loewe, Webber, Simon & Norman, Romberg, Claude-Michel Schönberg, and Rodgers & Hammerstein, with "Danny Boy," "Granada," and a duet from Lehár's The Merry Widow tossed in for good measure.
The excellent orchestra — 49 players, including some of our best regional freelancers (due in part to the fact that the NC Symphony had its own gig elsewhere, at the same time...) — was given several turns in the sun all by itself, starting with the overture to Hérold's Zampa, ou La fiancée de marbre (to give its full title), an otherwise totally unknown opéra comique, premiered in 1831, by the composer best known for the ballet, La fille mal gardée. (This bit of schoolmarm-ism is provided at no additional cost because there were no program notes with the printed lists of works and performers.) The orchestra sounded reasonably well in this opening work, although the microphones tended to spotlight certain instruments and sections — the harp, and the winds and brass — at the expense of the strings, but alas the lower end of the spectrum was pretty consistently deficient as heard from seats near the sound booth in the middle of the amphitheater. Thus the Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin lacked the visceral impact it merits, and two orchestral excerpts from Carmen — an intermezzo, followed, incongruously, by the Act I Prelude, both "conducted" by the winner of a fund-raising auction — seemed somewhat limp.
The rest of the show was led by OCNC's Principal Conductor Timothy Myers; he also served as the master of ceremonies, adding banter from the podium while the young professional singers made their way from backstage to the lip of the platform. The vocalists were soprano Sarah Jane McMahon, whose feet were said to be in both worlds (opera and musicals) but whose performances demonstrated slightly better command in the Broadway bits; tenor Robert McPherson, whose generally impressive voice and — for a member of his ilk — relatively restrained platform manners gave considerable pleasure; and home-town baritone Lucas Meachem, who was (apparently) last heard here in 2006. These folks sang solo numbers and duets, with the baritone getting a couple more appearances than the other two, although it was the power of his personality that, by and large, made it seem like he dominated the evening.
Now there are some problems with the venue, not the least of which is the parking situation; although, as opposed to downtown, it's free: there's some hiking involved at the constantly-under-construction museum, and making it back up those little hills may have been challenging for folks with disabilities — or even, as someone said on the way in, for gals in high heels. The other prob — and it was a huge one — was the hideous overamplification of the singers. During the first half, from roughly the center of the venue, the volume was often painfully loud, obliging this critic and many within visual range to cover their ears due to the physical discomfort. This worked to the great detriment of Myers' and his singers' obvious best intentions, for the soft places — often at the beginning of the numbers — were made loud by the gain-riding techies, resulting in more gain-riding to minimize distortion during louder parts later on, the sum total of which was that, dynamically, too much of the first half sounded all the same — consistently too loud. And never mind that the vocalists totally dominated the orchestra, often obliterating its more subtle and nuanced contributions.**
Because we hadn't brought earplugs — who would normally need them at an "opera" event? — we moved almost as far back as it was possible to get, for the second half, during which things sounded far better, although the orchestra seemed underpowered and lacking in richness and the balance continued to favor the singers — at the occasional expense of the music. There was only one duet in the first half — that sublime tenor-baritone thing from The Pearl Fishers — but in part two there were three, in a row, and one of them was reprised as the second encore. These gems — from the aforementioned Lehár score, from Phantom of the Opera, and from The Secret Garden — gave the three singers, in attractive pairings, plenty of room to demonstrate their skills, and they did so, radiantly. (That there was not one trio in this program baffled some of us, but c'est la vie.) The crowd was enthusiastic, as it had been from the outset (there was a standing ovation at the end of the first half, even), and the demonstration at the end of the show lasted many minutes, till Meachem came back on stage to sing the one number — the "Soliloquy" from Carousel — that had been cut from the published program (in favor of "Danny Boy"). Even that wasn't enough, so to wrap it up, a genuine encore — a reprise of the duet from The Secret Garden — was offered, after which, at around 10:30 p.m., the musicians packed up to go home.
It was — but for the amplification — a fine evening, and generous, too, and it was apparently a big success, making one think that a series of opera excerpts — or, better still, complete works in concert form — might be a great addition to the generally bleak offerings in the capital, in the summertime. Maybe they could be done in such a way as to sidestep the need for electronics, too.... In any event, those who prefer their voices au naturel (in a manner of speaking...) have relief on the immediate horizon, for Long Leaf Opera's summer festival begins June 12, in Stewart Theatre, and it's a good bet that there will be no microphones there for anything but the welcoming announcements. (See our calendarf or details.)
OCNC's next scheduled production is Rigoletto, planned for early October. This evening's tenor is booked for the role of the Duke. Stay tuned.
**At intermission, I asked the guy in the booth if he does a lot of rock concerts, and he said he did. I then told him that that formula doesn't cut it for opera, at which point he said he had no control over the situation. If that's the case, OCNC or the NCMA — or both — should demand their money back from the sound folks named in the program: Jeff Linker and Lee Spears.