As was the case during the April 1 performance by NCSU’s Grains of Time, a major theme of Lehár’s The Merry Widow, seen and heard in Memorial Auditorium on the afternoon of April 3, was love, in diverse aspects. The piece is 100 years old, having been premiered in 1905. But even then it was a fin-de-siècle work, one that looked back with fondness and not a little regret at the great operas-comique of the past – pieces by Strauss, Offenbach, and others – rather than embracing the changes that were to come – in music, in politics, in war…. The story of Merry Widow is ridiculous in the extreme, particularly as seen from our vantage-point, a century later. Since its premiere, some would say, morals have declined, the prevalence and risks of sexually-transmitted diseases have increased, and works like this have come to be viewed, cynically perhaps, as quaintly old-fashioned and definitely passé. Still, there’s much to be said for Lehár’s magnum opus, for it’s no more preposterous than a lot of other operas that still engage audiences, and it has the advantage of being devoid of blood, gore, autos-da-fé, immolations, assassinations, severed heads, and the like – Lord knows we get enough of most of those every night on the TV news.

The production marked the first of two operas being presented this season in a mini-series offered by the Opera Company of North Carolina – Tosca follows, in June – and it was distinguished by some artistically noteworthy and indeed newsworthy attributes. For openers, the great American baritone William Stone debuted with OCNC; he’s performed all over the world and is perhaps the dean of singers in his vocal category nowadays. Also making his debut with OCNC – at long last, too – was conductor William Henry Curry. He’s no stranger to the art form, having led operas elsewhere (and recorded an important one), so it’s been a great mystery that he was kept waiting so long for this truly wonderful moment in his career here. The title role was taken by Shelia Smith, whose striking stage presence and impressive voice was heard in a professional context for the first time, in North Carolina, longer ago than she or this critic may care to remember – more of that in a bit.

Attendance at the Sunday matinee was off, and the place couldn’t have been more than half full. That’s a shame, but perhaps it was the spectacularly beautiful afternoon or the perception that this is lightweight fare, or maybe people were worn out by too much basketball. Who knows? We’ve got to support outfits like OCNC, lest we loose them – opera companies here have historically existed on shaky ground, and long-term success hinges on revenue.

Anyone who enjoys Strauss’ Fledermaus would enjoy Merry Widow – and chances are good even newcomers would have found lots of familiar music and been hard-pressed not to hum along with the big tunes. We won’t recount the full story of the opera, but there’s a synopsis at (labeled “2003-2004 Season,” but it’s current) [inactive 12/08]. Suffice it to say that it centers on love, money, and politics, and that everything comes out ok at the end. Along the way, we meet four principals – sung here by soprano Elizabeth Williams-Grayson (Valencienne), Smith (Hanna Glawari, the Merry Widow), tenor Michael Sommese (de Rosillon), and Stone (Danilovich). Williams-Grayson’s character is married to a Baron, portrayed by James Anderson, but for most of the opera she carries on with the tenor instead. The Widow is graced by youth, beauty and a small fortune, left her by her late lamented hubby, who – according to the story – didn’t survive the first night of their marriage…. Stone’s character loves the Widow but he is loath to admit it. In this opera it is, surprisingly, the tenor who eventually gets left out in the cold. Humm.

The two primary courtiers were sung by John Oliver and John Cashwell, and the happy trio of yes-men were Henry S. Gibbons, Jason S. McKinney, and Krassen Karagiozov – the names of these artists will be familiar to regular readers of CVNC, and it’s a fact that they are among our very best locally-based singers. Other participants included Fred Gorelick, soubrettes (for want of a better word) Andrea Edith Moore, Ellen Williams, Carolyn McKenna, and a flock of what Lehár’s book calls grisettes – not call-girls, exactly, we are told – sung (and danced) by Courtney Atkins, Emily Baldwin, Cecily Anne Boyd, Megan Crosson, and Kelly Smith. Cindy Hoban, who did the choreography, and Zeki Maviyildiz were the straight dancers, a chorus of 33 voices was prepared by Paul Chandley, and the superior orchestra, headed by Concertmaster Eric Pritchard (of the Ciompi Quartet), was composed of outstanding artists and teachers from throughout the region. Since the NC Symphony was otherwise occupied, there were none of the customary fill-ins from that side of the house. The splendor of the orchestral playing throughout the performance says much about the instrumentalists and the leadership on this occasion, and it’s a great big feather in the cap of Tarheelia that an orchestra of this size (45 players) and caliber can be assembled at the same time the NCS is elsewhere. Things are definitely looking up!

Merry Widow can be viewed as a set of tuneful numbers – these include Valencienne’s “I am a respectable wife,” Danilovich’s “Oh fatherland,” Hanna’s “Vilya-Lied” and her grand duet with Danilovich, de Rosillon’s and Valencienne’s “Pavilion” duet, and the finale, which begins as so much Viennese whipped cream (albeit in a Parisian dive) but ends on a heartwarming and reaffirming note. The musical numbers are linked thematically – the famous “Merry Widow Waltz,” the “Vilja-Lied,” and one or two others serve as quasi-Leitmotiven – but it is an operetta since there is dialog instead of sung recitatives. All that chatter helped convey the plot and clarified the action, but it made for a longer sit than some attendees anticipated; when it’s revived, some pruning might be in order, and it would make sense to run the very short third act as scene 2 of the previous one.

The opera was presented in a set brought in from the Utah Symphony and Opera, and while it was not lavish, it looked quite wonderful, was well lit (by Kenneth Yunker), and worked extremely well. Each act was distinctly showcased and atmospheric, and the sets for the first two acts were applauded. Things mentioned in the opera were where they needed to be, people moved on and off the stage smoothly, and nothing seemed to interfere with the unfolding story or its music. Stage director Richard Harrell is due a lot of the credit for that and for the overall success of the show. The cast was dressed in garments from Costume World, and they were good enough.

Memorial Auditorium is a barn, almost as wide as it is deep, and it’s an acoustical challenge – that’s why the NCS was eager to move out. There’s an opera theatre next door, but its pit and capacity are too small, so if you wanna do opera downtown, you gotta do it in Memorial – and you must amplify to enable the voices to be heard. On this occasion, the sound was done by Mike Edwards, and it was not a total success. Generally speaking, the men sounded better than the women, and where some people were standing to sing made some differences. To these ears, the sound was sometimes shallow and deficient in lower registers. Let’s call it uneven, at best. The amplification was never especially blatant, so one must assume that when certain voices stood out (in ensembles, where perhaps they should not have dominated), it was due in large measure to the fact that those involved had larger voices than some of the others. None of the foregoing marred the overall results to any great extent, but it’s worth saying – again – that Memorial is a problem hall and that it is not an ideal venue for opera.

The individual performances were all very strong. Williams-Grayson was vivacious and charming and sang wonderfully, putting across her words like the seasoned musical-theatre person she is. Sommese was an ideal partner, vocally and dramatically, and his projection, too, was first rate. The secondary roles were cast from strength and it showed – collectively, they served to remind us that we need not go beyond our own borders to mount completely satisfying productions of staged opera.

At the outset, I mentioned Smith’s work here, long ago. She was a member of the National Opera Company, and for the 1977-78 season, for the N&O, I had the pleasure of praising her beautiful, warm and even voice and noting that “her diction was a model of clarity.” The venue back then was the hall now known as Jones Auditorium, where the sound was and is better for opera than Memorial. Alas, a lot of what she sang for OCNC, while beautiful to hear, was incomprehensible, regardless of where she was on the stage. This was true in the English text of the opera itself – the translation was by Thomas Holliday – and in the German words of “Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiß,” from Lehár’s Giuditta, interpolated into the final act. She was clearly audible most of the time, and the spoken passages came across well, but there were problems with projection in both solo and ensemble numbers that interfered with full understanding for some in attendance. Her acting carried the day, so people knew what was going on, but it would have been better if we could have heard more of her part. Was it the amplification, given its deficiencies in lower registers? Maybe.

But Stone had no problems, and the range of his voice is in a lower register. He dominated the action whenever he was on stage, not in the sense that he overshadowed anyone but merely by his commanding and experienced presence. Just hearing him and seeing him work was worth the price of admission and much, much more, for he is a complete artist, and it showed in everything he did, even when he did it peripherally, while others were carrying on with whatever the main event of the moment happened to be. It’s rare to encounter such a well-rounded singing actor, and we were richly blessed by his presence – and chances are good, too, that that presence helped elevate the performances of many if not all of his colleagues. Bravo.

Bravo, too, to Curry, who worked the afternoon’s second miracle, and with just a few orchestral rehearsals. Yes, he had at his disposal some exceptional players, but he also clearly loved the score, and he managed nuances and shadings of expression and dynamics one would have been amazed to hear in the concert hall, in the greatest works of the canon, never mind in something light and frothy and diversionary, and with a pit band.

CVNCers have been pleased to observe and report on the steady growth and improvement in the OCNC, and this was a superb achievement. Mark that Tosca in your book. If they keep working like this, it will definitely be something to see.

OCNC is not content to do a couple of operas a year. In addition to this mini-series, they offer gala concerts – it costs big bucks to do opera – and they do educational work in the arts, since the schools tend not to, anymore. The final dress rehearsal, on Thursday last, was attended by a huge crowd of young people – more, perhaps, than paid to see the show on Sunday. They hailed from Briarcliff and Lockhart elementary schools, Exploris and Moore Square middle schools, Millbrook and Leesville Road high schools, St. Augustine’s and Meredith colleges, Campbell University, and various other institutions, including home schools. OCNC Artistic Director Robert Galbraith talked with and entertained them during the intermissions, and some told me they loved it, so that, too, is a big plus. Perhaps there’s hope, after all.