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The intimate Sunrise Theater, venue for Moore County's Classical Concert Series, was sold out as music lovers, friends, and relatives eagerly anticipated the return of one of their own, Lucas Meachem, who has risen to international operatic fame. The nearby Carthage native attended Union Pines High School, Appalachian State University, the Eastman School of Music, and Yale University. His wife, Irina, an accomplished opera coach, was his skilled piano accompanist.
Unexpected opportunities can launch the career of a well-prepared artist. Meachem was seduced into singing by a love for karaoke, in his Carthage days. While taking an opera performance break in a Paris nightclub, mezzo-soprano Susan Graham heard him take a turn at karaoke and recommended he substitute for the role of Orestes in Iphigénie en Tauride of Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-87) being staged by Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Meachem's selections for the first half of his recital were from operas that have been highlights of his career. There was no lack of power as he dramatically launched into Orestes aria, "Le calmer rentre dans mon coeur!" His French diction was superb, as was his careful attention to color and tone. His warm baritone was evenly supported across its range, and both his lower and higher notes were ideally focused. The Steinway's lid was fully raised but Irina balanced him superbly. She conveyed Gluck's agitated orchestration that underlies Orestes' Act II recounting of his life at the hands of the Fates to his (unrecognized) surviving sister Iphigénie.
The next selection was from Die Zigeunerprimas (The Gypsy Band Leader), by Hungarian operetta composer Emmerich Kálmán (1882-1953). A 22-year-old Meachem had tackled the role of Pali Rácz, a 60-year-old gypsy band leader/violinist. In the aria "I was King of Gypsy Players," Meachem scaled and shaded his voice and body language to convey a gout-ridden old man recalling past times when he was the toast of the courts and the ladies.
Next came "Kogda by zhizn' domashmim krugom" (Were I the sort who had intended to lead a calm domestic life) from Act I of Eugene Onegin by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-93). As Onegin, Meachem modulated his voice to convey a well-mannered, diffident dandy who feels only brotherly affection and does not reciprocate Tatiana's love for him.
Irina Meachem is the daughter of Romanian immigrants. Besides her studies at Lawrence University (BA) and Florida State (MA), she studied piano at Georges Enescu High School of Music in Romania. As in the Meachems' 2017 recital, she chose a selection from the too neglected composer. From Suite No. 3, Pieces impromtus, Op. 18 (1913-16), by Georges Enescu (1881-1955), she chose "Melodie." The composer was influenced by the French, and Irina's refined performance brought out a fine palette of color and clear articulation that whetted the appetite for more.
At the Los Angeles Opera, Meachem portrayed the role of Figaro in The Ghosts of Versailles (1991) by John Corigliano (b.1938) in its 2015 west coast premiere. Meachem reaped a plethora of glowing reviews during the production's run, and its cast recording won the 2017 Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording. The opera is based on Le Mère Coupable (The Guilty Mother), the third of Pierre Beaumarchais' Figaro trilogy. Rossini set the first, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Mozart set Le Nozze di Figaro. In the third installment, an aged Figaro is still a "fixer."
Meachem has sung all three Figaros and there was a hint of the old, boastful meddler as he sang "They Wish They Could Kill Me," his entrance aria. Irina knocked on the piano to suggest a mob hammering at the door, seeking to either beg his help or to thrash him. Body language suggested a wheezing, bent old man, but the earlier character was evoked as Meachem slowly unleashed his vocal power or his precise suggestion of comic patter.
No one could have missed seeing that Irina was, as Samuel Pepys might have noted, "great with childe." This added to the poignancy of their heartfelt performance of the Kindertotenlieder of Gustav Mahler. The four poems by Friedrich Rückert were written upon the deaths of two of his children. The death-haunted Mahler, despite his wife Alma's warnings, set them to music, only to lose his own daughter later. Irina beautifully suggested Mahler's spare, subtle orchestration, underpinning Meachem's kaleidoscopic portrayal of an anguished parent's grief. His mellow tone was ideally modified to capture the mercurial shifts of mood, reflecting the different causes of grief in the poems.
The formal program ended with a vivid performance of "Soliloquy" from Carousel (1945), the second musical by the team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Meachem pulled out all the stops for carousel barker Billy Bigelow's quicksilver shifts in attitude as he reflects upon unexpectedly hearing his love is pregnant in "Soliloquy" (If it's a boy, if it's a girl). His ffs were riveting, anticipating a son, before shifting to beautifully-spun tenderness if a daughter. Never, in any character, was a suggestion of Meachem lacking stage presence, in spades!
Enthusiastic audience response was rewarded with a richly nostalgic performance of "Oh Shenandoah," a traditional American folksong that evolved from French voyageurs traveling down the Missouri River.