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It was a dark and stormy night. (Since the area had been under a tornado watch for most of the day, it is almost certain that Edward Bulwer-Lytton would have forgiven such an opening, especially given the stormy aspects of some of the evening’s offerings.) Exotic beasts were at large in the land, or at least within the confines of Fletcher Opera Theater.
These beasts furnished the title of the first of two major works. Menotti’s The Unicorn, the Gorgon and the Manticore (A Madrigal Fable) featured performers from the Raleigh Dance Theater (Artistic Director Mary LeGere), along with nine instrumentalists and the twenty-one member North Carolina Master Chorale Chamber Choir. All action was performed under the baton of Music Director Alfred E. Sturgis. This fable featured a man from the castle with his fabulous animals, the townsfolk, and the Count and Countess, with the dance movements on the grounds of a castle which dimly appeared in the background.
In addition to the expressive ballet appearances, this piece featured the evening’s genuine musical experiences. The twelve Madrigals of the choir were generally interspersed with the instrumentalists and dancers. So with perhaps a couple of exceptions, the vocal numbers were a cappella. The music did not seem to be elementary or intuitive. Thus the singers’ ability to stay so consistently on key was astonishing. Their enunciation was so clear as to render the libretto copy almost unnecessary. The singers actually furnished the ballet music as the Gorgon came on to dance in the Fifth Madrigal.
Stravinsky’s Les Noces (The Wedding) made for the evening’s sound spectacular (if one can use the term “spectacular” for an auditory attraction). This piece is difficult to characterize, a cross between ballet and opera. The composer himself lamely referred to “Choreographic scenes with song and music.” The four scenes of this Russian wedding depicted “The Bride’s Chamber,” “The Bridegroom’s House,” “The Departure of the Bride,” and “The Wedding Feast.” The listener was totally at sea when trying to discern in this concert version just who is involved in the action at any given moment. Perhaps Stravinsky deliberately designed this ambiguity into the work.
Featured here was the full North Carolina Master Chorale along with four top-flight soloists: Soprano Maggie Pate Duffey, mezzo Jennifer Seiger, tenor Wade Henderson, and bass David Mellnik. (This bass singer’s “Russian-sound” was a joy and a wonder.) The music was scored for four pianos and percussion of the most elaborate sort. The pianists were NCMC accompanist Susan Lohr, Frank Pittman, Nancy Whelan, and Tom Koch. Their workout was exhausting and inspiring to behold. One could visualize two piano duos of yore, a combination of Whittemore & Lowe along with Vronsky & Babin. Sturgis was again the leader of these huge combined forces.
While the purely musical value of the piece is open to discussion, its entertainment value cannot be denied. The performers’ excellence and enthusiasm were contagious.