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Piedmont Opera, based in Winston-Salem, is one of the first opera companies in the area to explore the medium of live-streamed opera performances. Here, in a program called "Echoes from Carolina," storytelling still took place despite the safety precautions and distancing due to the pandemic. Two small-scale yet emotionally intimate works were paired, taking advantage of the opportunities that a camera crew provides. Instead of one angle, the viewing audience had many – including closeups of the singers' faces and multiple angles of choreography. Instead of just "making do" with this new format, Piedmont Opera took advantage to the fullest extent and set an example that, hopefully, more ensembles will follow.
Carlisle Floyd's first published opera, the stoic Slow Dusk, was accompanied by Nancy Johnston's lush and moody piano playing. Scene One opens with an increasingly urgent piano set against the backdrop of a yellow dawn. Floyd's vocal lines lend themselves to sudden shifts in mood, especially with Aunt Sue, a sprightly mezzo with a good balance of the southern accent (sung by Phyllis Pancella), and her foreshadowing criticism of Micah and Sadie. Aunt Sue converses with Jess (performed by Andre Peele) and despite the mundane nature of their discussion (peas and biscuits, etc.), the whole exchange feels foreboding, thanks to the storytelling (without much exposition) from Peele and Pancella.
The set was minimalistic, with a simple front porch (Aunt Sue's domain) and a table and chairs set downstage. Norman Coates' lighting design did much of the dramatic work in the first half of the performance. Sadie (Charli Mills) and Micah (Logan Webber) play a convincing lovestruck and anguished couple; in some scenes, their lack of actual embracing increases the tension more. Mills' voice, especially through her subsequent soliloquy aria, made Floyd's unpredictable melodic leaps, often across the passagio, seem organic. Webber's soaring melodic lines illustrated his character well, although sometimes his voice sounded slightly closed off in the higher, sweeping phrases. As mentioned above, a close camera zoom on the lovers' faces was quite unique to this medium of performance, and offered a new perspective (in addition to helping the singers maintain a safe distance from one another).
The conclusion of Slow Dusk is quite abrupt: Micah drowns that same afternoon while fishing in the pond. Sadie's resulting anguish was brought to life by Mills, taking the opportunity for beautiful dynamic nuance and a haunting sound. Besides this, the opera ends as simply as it began – a matter-of-fact depiction of country life.
Kenneth Frazelle grew up listening to his grandmother's and great uncle's versions of Appalachian folk songs – inspired later, he sifted through hundreds of songs, transcribing the single vocal lines of the ones that told a story and used unconventional modes. The result is the suite From Appalachia. Frazelle's compositions alter each verse to increase drama as the story unfolds, using the piano to build tension (executed successfully by PG Hazard).
Jodi Burns and James Allbritten sang "SHE" and "HE" respectively, the two nameless characters who fluidly sang each story from their places in the orchestra pit. Meanwhile, onstage, dancers from the Winston Salem Festival Ballet illustrated each scene. Choreographer/Director Gary Taylor's movements created a blend of upbeat, contemporary soft-shoe, and even some elements of line dancing were used at times.
Overall, there was a unique contrast of songs, with the jig-like "Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss" against the tragic "Naomi Wise." In the latter performance, silk fabric was used to dramatic affect to portray the river where Naomi met her demise. Not all selections were quite as dark – "Our Good Man" aired on the humorous side, and Allbritten's vocal characterization shone through. In contrast to much of the program, the final performance was more upbeat – "Sally Ann" gave audiences a joyful dance to close what was an effectively dark and emotional program.
This performance repeats Sunday, October 18. See our sidebar for details or go here to buy your ticket! And since this is a gala, contributions are always welcome. Go here to give. And unlike voting, you may give more than once.