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Toying for catchy titles for this review, I was torn between that of Thomas Hardy's Return of the Native and North Carolina's own Thomas Wolfe's You Can't Go Home Again. The later may be a truism but lyric baritone Lucas Meachem sure proved you can give a triumphal recital before the hometown folks! The Moore County Arts Council's opening concert of the Classical Concert Series featured the native of nearby Carthage. A number of the singer's former classmates from Union Pines High School and Appalachian State University were in the ample Sunrise Theater audience. Besides ASU, Meachem pursued vocal studies at the Eastman School of Music, Yale University, and a turn as an Adler Fellow at the San Francisco Opera. He was ably accompanied by his wife, Irina Meachem, an active accompanist of singers at many opera companies and classical music festivals internationally.
Four Selections from Aaron Copland's Old American Songs served to display the quality and range Meachem's voice. "Ching-A-Ring-Chaw" and "I Bought Me A Cat" gave him scope for comedy. His warm tone was paired with an ability to project a mood. "The Wall of Zion" and "At the River" brought out the dark, velvet quality of his lower range. Meachem's remarkably well-supported voice was on constant display throughout this concert. Hushed notes were just as focused as was his most dramatic fortes.
Meachem and Irina took it in turn to informally introduce selections. The pianist said that she liked it when her (clearly outgoing) husband had to save his voice for singing! She noted that one of the attractions of the next three lieder selections – "Ständchen" ( D. 957/4). "Nacht und Träume" (D.827), and "An die Musik" (D.547) by Franz Schubert – was the composer's equal treatment of both the voice and the keyboard. Her accompaniment perfectly suggested the strumming of a guitar or lute supporting Meachem's seamless opening serenade. Both conjured the dreamlike nocturne of the second song and the heart-felt reverie of the paean to music.
About the selection of three songs from Robert Schumann's Kerner Lieder, Op. 35, Meachem said No. 8 "Stille Liebe" and No. 10 "Stille Tränen" reminded him of high school. He said he had been popular, a class president, but not "cool" – he didn't get the girls. Those songs of aching love never spoken were perfectly limned by Meachem's shading of his vocal tone. No. 9 "Frage" is an unsung formal love song.
The printed program's first half ended with a lovely performance of Frédéric Chopin's Waltz No. 2 in C-sharp minor, Op. 64. Minnesota–born Irina explained her Romanian immigrant parents had insisted she return to Bucharest to study the piano. She related this to Chopin's longing for his Polish homeland that haunts his works composed in Paris. For this piece and the rest of the program, the Steinway grand piano's lid was raised to its lowest position which allowed a fuller, more open sound. Rhythm and phrasing were judged perfectly.
Instead of leaving the stage for the green room, Irina ducked briefly behind the curtains on the left before returning to the piano and striking up the boisterous music leading to "Ah, ah! Che bella vita!" the entrance aria of Figaro from Gioacchino Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Meachem had doffed his sports coat, donned a lurid coat with red stripes and sharpening strap. He made a spectacular entrance from the back of the hall, singing lustily down the right aisle, before strutting about the stage and delivering a vivid account of one of his major roles.
Don Giovanni opened the post intermission program. Irina conjured the guitar accompaniment for the skirt-chasing Don's "Deh vieni, alla finestra." The baritone scaled his lustrous tone gorgeously to spin out the womanizer's honeyed serenade.
It was a rare treat to hear a singer in his prime sing "Di Provinza il mar, il suol" from Act II, Scene 1 of Giuseppe Verdi's La Traviata. The role of the Elder Germont is often given to an older singer whose voice is no longer fresh. The father is begging his son, Alfredo, to abandon his courtesan and return to their upper-class home. Meachem paced his delivery to convey the gravity of his character's concern.
"Non ti scordar di me" by Ernesto de Curtis was sung in memory of the late Luciano Pavarotti. Meachem said, when he was a teenager, a cassette of the tenor's "The Tenors" had inspired him to become an opera singer. He brought out the lovely lyric line elegantly with excellent Italian diction, briefly dabbing his face with a hankie, and ending with a held note at his highest range.
Longing for homeland was a theme of Irina's solo selction, the Sarabande from Enescu's Suite No. 2 for Piano, Op. 10. About a visit to the composer's home, she recalled the deep sonority of the bells in the church next door. The composer was in Paris and bell-like sounds are combined with his own application of Impressionism in the work. She evoked a wide palette of tone color and texture.
Lighter selections brought the printed program to an end. From George and Ira's 1924 musical, Lady, Be Good, Meachem sang the title song. From Richard Roger's South Pacific, he sang "This Nearly Was Mine."
Meachem recalled he had learned the words of the virtuosic patter song "My Name is John Wellington Wells" from W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan's The Sorceror in diction class at ASU. The clarity of his articulation of the text at a breakneck speed was astonishing.
On the occasion of the couple's performance at the Athaneaum in Bucharest, Meachem learned the Romanian text of "Muzica" from Valurile Dunǎrii by Theodor Grigoriu. This is a song about remembering the Danube River and the deep spiritual role of music in a person's life. It is from a movie, The Waves of the Danube (1959) about the anti-Nazi resistance's efforts to sink barges carrying arms.
Meachem recently won a Grammy for his role on the Los Angeles Operas recording of The Ghosts of Versailles (Pentatone PTC 5186538). He was also named winner of the San Francisco Opera's inaugural "Emerging Star of the Year" Award in 2016. He can also be heard on Tchaikovsky's opera Iolanta which stars soprano Anna Netrebko (Deutsche Gramophone 479 3969GH2).