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Like all the arts, opera is having some severe financial problems in these bad economic times. However, it is inspiring to know that in some instances the superb music, drama, and performance of modern opera can thrive despite those forces which try to bring it down. Long Leaf Opera’s outstanding presentation of scenes from three new operas in North Carolina State’s Stewart Theatre strongly supports my views.
The unfortunately small audience in the theatre was offered looks inside the music and drama of Jeanne, a one-act opera with music and libretto by Justine F. Chen; Hidden Jewel, a one-act opera with music by Robert Chumbley and libretto by Ruth Hart; and Pearl, an opera in two acts with music by Tina Davidson and libretto by Eva Davidson, who adapted Mary Gordon’s novel for the libretto. In determining which material would be performed from each of these works, the composers, librettists and directors skillfully chose scenes which would immediately arrest and maintain the attention of the audience because of the taut dramatic situations portrayed and the opportunity they offered to display the most effective acting and singing of cast members. In all instances the choices could not have been better.
Jeanne is about the trial of Jeanne d’Arc and the men who are motivated to see her burned at the stake as a heretic. The librettist takes us inside the minds and motivations of the Dauphin she had come to save and to see crowned King, the Bishop leading the prosecutorial attack against her, and his very efficient Interrogator. The audience is allowed inside the mind of Charles the Dauphin as he confesses the arrogance and selfish motives which first led him to use her help and then urged him to throw her to the mercies of an ecclesiastical court. The Bishop Cachon and his Interrogator reveal to the audience the churchman’s intentions to destroy a woman he identifies as a heretic. The Bishop’s confession makes clear his darkest plans against Joan and the reason for them. The dramatic tension in these scenes is riveting; the motivations of the characters are made clear; and the fine voices of tenor Kerry Jennings as the Dauphin, baritone Charles Stanton as the Bishop, and baritone William Reid as the Interrogator bring Chen’s music and drama to life.
Hidden Jewel, a story of love blossoming under the most trying circumstances, secures and holds audience attention for far different reasons than Jeanne did. The central conflict in the opera, underscored by the four scenes chosen for performance, is the terrible dilemma facing a Nazi officer falling in love with a Jewish girl in World War II Marseilles. Should he follow the dictates of his country or those of his heart? This one-act opera is the first in a series of brief operas in which composer Chumbley and librettist Hart plan to trace the developing love story of Nazi Kurt Mueller and the Jewish girl Bijou through the war years and the years after, focusing on the trials their love will face. The tender scene of first meeting of the lovers sets up the conflict and the others intensify the tension these two young people face as their attraction for each other develops. Charles Stanton as Kurt Mueller, lovely soprano Stephanie Foley Davis as Bijou, and mezzo-soprano Joan LeTourneau as Madame Fremeaux give strong performances in their roles. Stanton and Foley Davis are also fine actors who offer quite believable portrayals of two real people trapped by love and circumstance in a very unenviable situation. These scenes whet a viewer’s appetite for more of this drama and more chances to appreciate the voices of these fine singers.
The final opera scenes, from the Davidsons’ Pearl, offer a clear picture of the central conflict on which the opera’s two acts focus. The scenes reveal a moving drama based on political and religious strife in Ireland and a young American student’s deep involvement in it, so much so that she plans to martyr herself to the cause of the religious freedom denied to the people with whom she, by inclination shy and removed from such struggles, has come to identify herself. The familiar voices and faces of Joan LeTourneau, Charles Stanton, Kerry Jennings and William Reid, whose fine voices enlivened the two previous opera snippets, reveal once more the worth of these performers as accomplished singers and actors. But the most stunning singing and acting in these eight scenes must be credited to lyric soprano Shaina Vatz as Pearl. In every scene in which she appears — and that is most of those in this performance — she delights by the beauty of her lyric soprano and her ability to tailor it to the portrayal of the young girl she brings to such passionate life.
The great artistic strength of these three exciting works, presented as works in progress under the aegis of Long Leaf Opera, does indeed give one hope for opera’s continued existence. Surely Long Leaf will bring back Jeannne, Hidden Jewel and Pearl in a state of completion and a (hopefully) much larger audience will be present to appreciate them.