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Long Leaf Opera's collected a lot more than bonus miles since it began offering American and English works to its Triangle public back in 1998. In welcoming remarks before a full house in the auditorium of East Chapel Hill High School on March 18, Artistic Director Randolph Umberger noted that LLO has been accepted as a professional member of Opera America, that the company will host a vocal competition for young artists this summer that will be national in scope, and that it's found a home, a permanent home, in Chapel Hill, at last. That home is the altogether felicitous auditorium where, on this occasion, the company presented Kismet, the musical – a quasi-operetta, some might say – that Robert Wright and George Forrest adapted from the compositions of Alexander Borodin. It's probably the best of the series of mid-century stage works and films based on other people's music, in part because of its relatively high number of popular hits. It's a good bet that the original Broadway cast recording – first issued on Columbia OL 4850 – has rarely if ever been out of print. (It is however curious that the film version of this 1953 adaptation of the age-old Arabian Nights story is one of the sorriest cinematic musicals ever made; go figure!)
Anyway, it's not an opera, but it helps to have strong operatic voices, and LLO's cast met or exceeded all the essential requirements. The cast is large, but there are five leads, and without exception the players looked and acted and sang splendidly. The poet who in 24 hours becomes the Emir of Baghdad was Rick Piersall, a baritone of surpassing excellence whose ability to project every consonant of every word continues to impress. His daughter Marsinah was sung with distinction by soprano Elizabeth Williams-Grayson, a former Miss NC who invariably dazzles audiences with her vocal talent and acting ability. She winds up falling for the Caliph of Baghdad, a tenor (of course) she thinks is a gardener, whom John Cashwell essayed. The darker side of the plot is represented by the Wazir – sort of a secret police kind of guy, portrayed stylishly by bass-baritone Richard Cray, whose academic credentials include a stint at the NCSA – and Lalume, one of his wives, sung by soprano Joan LeTourneau. Other characters included a fellow named Omar Khayyam, a foil of sorts who is consistently upstaged by the main Kismet poet, plus a slew of dancers and dervishes of various shapes and sizes, a fig seller, several beggars and thugs, and many, many more. The hangers-on formed the chorus, delivering the words with clarity comparable to the principals. The 17-member orchestra was on-stage, tucked between two stylized portals beneath a dome and two minarets. Music Director Benjamin Keaton conducted, maintaining good perspective nearly all the time. There weren't always enough strings to balance the brasses, and the high winds got a bit carried away every so often, but the spirit was consistently on the money and the large crowd seemed to love nearly every minute of the generous show. The single set provided several levels for action on stage, and bridges across the orchestra pit, which served as the Euphrates River (in which the Wazir met his demise before the poet ran off to an undisclosed desert location with Lalume), facilitated much running around through the auditorium by dancers and other cast members. The costumes, by Maria Savitsky, were colorful and nicely coordinated, giving the show consistent uniformity. The sets were constructed by students at East Chapel Hill High, and surely many of the dancers and choristers came from the school, too.*
For the record there were a few numbers long-time Kismet fans may not have recognized, including "My Magic Lamp," at the start of the show, and "Boring," at the end of Act I. But there were also all the great landmarks, and all were superbly realized. These included the big production numbers "Rhymes Have I," "Fate," "Not Since Ninevah," "Baubles, Bangles and Beads," "Stranger in Paradise," "He's in Love," "Gesticulate," "Night of My Nights," "Was I Wazir?." "The Olive Tree," "Rahadlakum," and "And this Is My Beloved," plus the wonderful dances that dot the story. The first act is disproportionately long, and some geezers (I can say this!) were observed glancing at their watches before the intermission, but few if any bailed out, and everyone was richly rewarded by this truly great show with music. That said, it's certainly silly enough to be an operetta or maybe even a grand opera....
I first saw Kismet in 1954, and it remains a personal favorite, but I must say that the present unpleasantness that is the War in Iraq intruded from time to time on my listening and watching pleasure. The Wazir, for example, sings of various persuasive methods in his arsenal.... The opening line of one of the first songs ("Baghdad – don't underestimate Baghdad") has been echoing in my mind since the first Gulf War, never mind the interminable second one in which we are now embroiled. But this, too, shall pass, and the music – Borodin's music, as filtered through Broadway – will live on. As it was, this LLO production served to remind some of us of happier times in the Middle East – and of the prospects, maybe, for better times to come.
*Updated 3/22/06: With thanks to a reader for filling a gap in our coverage..., the chorography of Kismet was by Boleyn Willis and many of the dancers came from Legacy Studios of Durham.