The St. Cecilia Singers, under the direction of Jeffrey Ward, is the women's chorus of East Carolina University. This concert began with three unrelated Handel arias to showcase the voice and art of ECU faculty members Rachel E. Copeland and Jami Rhodes. In an eight-page program with two and half blank pages, surely it is not unreasonable to want the libretto in the original, not just the English translation, to appear.
From Alcina, Rhodes sang "De te mi rido." She has a pleasant and powerful voice under complete control. There were occasional passages that demonstrated that she can sing without vibrato.
Rachel E. Copeland sang “Piangerò la sorte mia” from Giulio Cesare, with gestures. One understands gestures as part of the rhetoric of opera, with costumes and dashing about; on the Fletcher stage, with a backup of a concert Steinway, thirty-odd young women in black long dresses, and a stolid audience of students with un-tucked shirttails, backpacks, and pocket devices texting as fast as ever so fast, the gestures seemed strange. Her painfully powerful voice would carry past the back of any baroque opera house; it's a nice voice but over-wrought. The aria was taken at a very slow tempo. I believe Rhodes has vanquished the shade of Emma Kirkby and is Met-bound, not Academy of Ancient Music.
Copeland was joined by Rhodes to sing the duet “Per le porte del tormento” from Sosarme. Their voices are pleasant and well-matched, but huge and forceful. If they will but add humor, in ten years they will be well-prepared to take up where Anna Russell left off. They were accompanied deftly by ECU faculty accompanist Alisa Gilliam on the universal instrument, the big black Steinway. With their black blingy dresses, this was the epitome of small-town big-C Culture, but there wasn't much left of Handel.
Next Jeffrey Ward led the St. Cecilia singers through Pergolesi's Stabat Mater. The twenty-eight singers all sang from memory. “Cuius animam gementem” was sung by Amanda Whitmore, soprano; such a big voice from such a young person, with lots of poise and excellent diction. “Queae moerebat et dolebat” was sung by Alexandra Braham, soprano, whose pure voice and minimal vibrato were very pleasant. Pairing Abigail Evans's lovely dark timbre with the contrasting timbre of Whitmore was very successful. In addition, both singers had very good diction. Whitmore remained on the stage for “Vidit suum dulcem natum.” Katherine Nolan, mezzo, sang “Eja mater fons amoris” in a strong straightforward voice, pleasant throughout her entire range. In “Fac ut ardeat cor meum” the chorus delivered the repeated suspensions with crisp technique; they were very well prepared. Whitmore and Braham made “Sancta mater istud aga” into a lovely duet. Hilary Campbell is a strong stage leader, not intimidated by the piano. She sang “Fac ut portem Christi mortem;” rather less vibrato would have been even nicer. The chorus “Inflammatus et accensus” is a nice fusion of the Spinning Song for chorus with a marching band part for the piano (nicely played by Gilliam). The final chorus “Quando corpus merietur” had a surprising amount of quavery singing, especially for such a group of otherwise fine young singers. Ward's deft leading and dead-on cueing are some of the obvious reasons for his overall success.