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Opera Review Print

Long Leaf Opera: A Rare But Well-Done Regina

June 13, 2008 - Chapel Hill, NC:

Another one bites the dust. The Columbus (Ohio) Symphony Orchestra just a few weeks ago performed their final concert and essentially now ceases to exist. This is mentioned only because we in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill region of North Carolina should feel proud and fortunate that we have a community that supports the arts and that these arts organizations are well-run, both artistically and financially. One of the success stories during the past decade is Long Leaf Opera, a company founded in 1998 by Randolph Umberger, artistic director, and Benjamin Keaton, music director. They have stayed true to their founding concept of presenting fully staged operas that were originally written in English.

Beginning in 2007, they changed their eight-year practice of presenting one major production in October to a month-long festival in June featuring operas, cabarets, and vocal recitals. They also now actively promote the careers of young singers via competitions and mentorship. This June is an especially ambitious and important milestone as Long Leaf Opera celebrates its tenth anniversary season with a schedule of performances that are on par with any major opera company anywhere in the world.

The opening major event of this festival is a rare revival of Marc Blitzstein's Regina, first performed in 1949 in New Haven, Connecticut, and later that year opening on Broadway, only to close after a few months. The history of this work, including its frequent rewritings and re-adaptations, serves as a microcosm of America's uneasy relationship with opera in general. Over the years Regina vacillated between "Broadway" and "operatic" productions and eventually seemed to collapse under the weight of its schizophrenic nature. Based on Lillian Hellman's play The Little Foxes, this presaged the fascination with gothic antebellum tales of the south like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and other plays of Tennessee Williams.

Upon entering UNC-Chapel Hill's Memorial Hall, you were immediately struck by the wonderful set design. It practically screamed "south," "south" – especially since the iconic southern/Greek columns (which are outside this very building) were all over the stage, inside the living areas. Never mind – this, after all, is theater. The storyline is a somewhat complicated soap opera-ish tale of betrayal, greed, and decaying familial relationships, all set in early 20th-century Alabama, but it could quite easily be transferred to neighboring Durham.

The orchestra that Long Leaf now uses is the Carolina Chamber Symphony, a wonderful orchestra based in Winston-Salem. They were expertly directed by Maestro Keaton and never overwhelmed the singers. As mentioned earlier, this is a work that wants to be all things to all people. One minute it sounds positively Germanic, followed closely by a practically larcenous Copland style, only to break into ragtime and blues in the next scene. The costumes were quite authentic, adding to the big-time professional aura of the production. The staging appeared, for the most part, to be natural and flowing, even in the scenes where as many as twenty people were on stage.

So, with all of that there is only one aspect of this production which prevented it from being a resounding success, and that is, simply, that quite often the text could not be understood – especially from the lead, Christine Weidinger as Regina. This also plagued the character of Birdie, sung by Barbara Ann Peters. Particularly in the higher registers, which they handled vocally quite beautifully, articulation disappeared and storyline suffered. Malcolm Smith, singing the "Big Daddy" Burl Ives-type role of Horace, was magnificent. His powerful bass voice was focused and understandable, and he also seemed to be the most "in character" of all the singers. Danielle Talamantes, debuting with Long Leaf, portrayed Regina's daughter Alexandra and showed herself to be a consummate singer and actress with a great future ahead of her on the stage.

I want to applaud the courage and commitment of the artistic directors and management of Long Leaf Opera to the artistic creation, represented by Regina, regarding the social settings of the time and place. There were scenes, especially in the first act, that, at least theatrically, portrayed African-Americans in a very stereotyped manner that was common at that time in film and theater. While one almost cringed at some of it, this is undoubtedly done in keeping with the authenticity of the story and the original production.

Long Leaf Opera's Festival continues through June 29. For details, click here.