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Long Leaf Opera wrapped up their eleventh season of nurturing American opera sung in English with three diverse, dramatic, and dynamic works, two of them by composers working in North Carolina. Though Stewart Theatre was sparsely filled (this is LLO’s first year in this venue), it was a warm and inviting gathering place for artists and audiences who are enthusiastic about contemporary American opera. Word of mouth will undoubtedly attract larger attendance at these creative and excellent early summer festivals in the years to come.
The evening opened with J. Mark Scearce’s A Tree – a Rock – a Cloud, a one act bit of nostalgia after the short story by Carson McCullers. The setting is a café, circa 1930s or so. An old man (Wade Henderson, tenor) who had been beaten down by life’s disappointments has learned his unique recipe of survival and his own interpretation of love. A young paperboy (Leda Scearce, soprano) enters the café to drink a cup of coffee and warm up from the outside chill. The old man latches on to him to relate his past miseries and his philosophy of recovery. He learned to love a goldfish and now loves anything – everybody. In the process, the café proprietor, Leo (Scott Macleod, baritone) enters the exchanges from time to time to interject his cynical interpretation of reality. After the old man leaves, the boy asks Leo if he was drunk or crazy. Leo answers both questions with a respectful, “No.”
Jon Mcllwee was the stage director and designed the sets and costumes. The ensemble was accompanied by Gregg Gelb, alto saxophone, Wes Parker, trombone, and cellist Jonathan Kramer, all conducted by Alfred E. Sturgis. This unique combination of instruments was blended and contrasted, maximizing their special timbres and styles to provide the flavor of a jazz combo and at the same time a classical underpinning to the work as a whole. Rich harmonies and unexpected combinations of sounds provided a most pleasant and enticing soundtrack. By the way, the story was adapted to a libretto by Scearce himself. The singing was truly outstanding, with special praise for the lead of Henderson, who was not only lyrical and dramatic but understandable as well. The ensemble passages with all three singers were very fine.
Chandler Carter’s Mercury Falling, with libretto by Daniel Neer is a fanciful melodrama exploring the relationship between the artist and his creation. The historical incident is recorded in Ruth Butler’s Rodin: The Shape of Genius. Sculptor Jean-Louis Brian (1805-64) froze to death in his unheated studio the night he completed his Mercury having wrapped the statue with the blankets from his bed to protect it from freezing and possibly breaking.
Carter’s opera is cast for solo tenor (Daniel Neer) and dancer (Jake Szczypek) and was accompanied by Viktor Valkov and Benjamin Smith, duo-pianists. The composer conducted the performance. The four hands on one piano provided music that was in turns mystical, affectionate, conflicted, triumphant, and much more, reflecting the monologue (and, at times, implied dialogue) and action on the stage. The sculptor admires his work, becomes suspicious of it, angry with it, at one with it. Szczypek’s athletic dancing and Neer’s singing took us through emotional paroxysms of immense proportions. As hypothermia drives him to hallucinations, his words and actions become more and more bizarre, reaching a climax when he pushes the statue off its pedestal. Horrified at his own irrational behavior he carefully sets his Mercury upright back on its platform. Eventually the overwhelming desire to sleep leads him to lie down and give way to his death knowing, it seems, that his work will survive him and live on in honor and respect.
Even though much of the text was incomprehensible in the singing of it, it was a strangely and powerfully moving drama. It brought to mind those same issues that Thomas Mann (and Benjamin Britten) delved into in Death in Venice. What is it about beauty that so disarms us? What is it about great art that is often both deeply unsettling and uniquely satisfying?
Ted Gorodetzky was the stage director and Jody Oberfelder was the choreographer.
The final opera of the evening was a bon-bon of delight with music by one of America’s most respected composers, Lee Hoiby, and librettist Mark Shulgasser. Bon Appétit is a comic reworking of one of the inimitable Julia Child’s early black and white television cooking shows. The French Chef shows us how to put together a classic French chocolate cake. In this performance, Barbara DeMaio Caprilli sang as Julia Child, her gestures quite convincing and her voice wry and witty as the original. The score was played by Carmine Mann, and Benjamin Keaton was the music director. Randolph Umberger was the stage director and set designer.
The piece begins with a repeated major scale that put me in mind of Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals, and shortly into the work there was reference to "La Marseillaise." The music moved the production along with wit and whimsy, the singing was charming, and the timing was just right. So many of the clichés were there, like tapping the excess flour from the cake pans on the floor, picking up the hot pan, forgetting the hot pad, and much more. It was a charming piece of nostalgia and a delightful ending for a very enjoyable evening.
American opera and indeed all opera sung in English is yet to be discovered as the treasure it is for the future: it offers full pleasure, enrichment, and vision. Long Leaf Opera is a remarkable, forward thinking, and adventurous leader for which we are to be indebted. To Executive Director Jim Schaeffer, Artistic Director Randolph Umberger, Music Director Benjamin Keaton, and a long list of others: Bravo!