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Opera Review

The Devil Did His Worst but Got Booted Out...

May 13, 2005 - Chapel Hill, NC:

It was Friday the thirteenth, so what could you expect? Long Leaf Opera's production of Douglas Moore's folk opera The Devil and Daniel Webster opened at East Chapel Hill High School Auditorium at the announced time – but without Daniel Webster! Henry S. Gibbons, who was to sing the role of the Secretary of State, was stricken with a fever and, despite all his pleading, his doctor absolutely forbade him to leave his sickbed. Long Leaf's operating budget does not permit the training and preparation of understudies, even for lead parts. It was a shame, but "the show must go on," and so it did. Company Acting Coach Geoff Zieger dressed for the role and, with script in hand, walked through the staging and spoke the lines. Clearly something was missing, but his emotive readings helped keep everything together, the action moved along meaningfully, and at the end of the show, he got appreciative applause for his efforts – as did Artistic Director Randolph Umberger, who stepped into the role of Justice Hawthorne in place of Zieger. In the final analysis, even though the Devil kept Gibbons from appearing in the role of Daniel Webster, he got shooed away at the end by the audience's delight and enjoyment of the production.

The opera, or rather folk-opera, is based on a short story from notable American author Stephen Vincent Benet (1898-1943), who also prepared the libretto. He is most famous for John Brown's Body (1928), a long narrative poem of the Civil War (Pulitzer Prize, 1929). His Western Star, another long narrative poem – about the westward migration, and left unfinished at his death –was published in 1943 (Pulitzer Prize, 1944). The music for The Devil and Daniel Webster was composed by Douglas Moore (1893-1969), who was born in Cutchogue, New York, out on Long Island, and grew up in folk opera's heyday; other seminal works from that era include Copland's The Tender Land, Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, and Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma. Moore is perhaps best known for The Ballad of Baby Doe, considered to be his masterpiece.

The story of The Devil and Daniel Webster revolves around the romantic leads, newlyweds Jabez Stone, a New Hampshire farmer (played by Charles Stanton) and Mary Stone, his wife (played by Nicole Vogel). Jabez, it seems, achieved great success after signing a contract with a certain Boston lawyer – Mr. Scratch (menacingly played by Carl Johnson). On the night of Jabez and Mary's happy wedding reception – with lively do-si-do music, punch, throwing the bouquet, and all those clichés – Mr. Scratch appears to collect his due. The couple appeals to the Secretary of State, the silver-tongued Daniel Webster, who of course brings the tale to a happy conclusion by out-witting Mr. Scratch at his own game.

Although the story is rather unimpressive for this generation of cynics and the music is somewhat formulaic and derivative, and despite the fact that Daniel Webster was played by a stand-in who read his lines from the script, rather than singing, it was an enjoyable evening. It was all it was promised to be – a folk opera for the entire family, sung in English, only an hour-and-fifteen-minutes long, and pleasing entertainment.

The hard work of the cast was apparent. Stanton and Vogel formed a fitting, newlywed couple, and Vogel's prayer before the big confrontation between the main protagonists was beautiful and tenderly moving. James Cox, double-cast as the Fiddler and King Phillip, did a fine job, though several times he failed to get his bow back on his fiddle in synch with the real violin in the pit. Other solo parts – sung by Annette Montgomery, Dale Bailey, Joseph Bishop, Nathan Jones, Dorester Alexander, and Thomas Link – were delivered with proper characterization and impressively sung. The dancing did much to brighten the show; it was well conceived by choreographer Boleyn Willis and nicely executed by the dancers. Sally Yeung, as the moth (lost soul) that flies out of Scratch's collecting box, was winsome and charming, and Joseph Bishop, treble, who sang the "Song of the Moth," was excellent. (Bishop repeats the role of Amahl in LLO's forthcoming December production of Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors.) The orchestra, under the baton of Benjamin Keaton, was outstanding.

The Triangle is many times blessed with opportunities to experience talent-laden, imaginative, and wonderfully creative artistic productions. All sorts of genres of musical performance are available in great abundance. Spread the word. Bring a friend or neighbor and enjoy the show. Long Leaf Opera is planning three productions next year and an annual fund-raising event. You won't want to miss the world premiere of Joel Feigin's Twelfth Night in October, Amahl and the Night Visitors in December, or Kismet next May.

Note: For the record, Jason McKinney, who recently appeared in OCNC's The Merry Widow, come up from South Carolina on the morning of 5/14 to help out LLO and, with score in hand, sang Daniel Webster that night, creating perhaps the first characterization of Daniel Webster by an African-American artist. The "Freedom Speech," I am told, gave the audience goose pimples.