Long Leaf Opera’s 2009 June Festival at North Carolina State University’s Stewart Theatre is brightening up the month with excellent operatic performances and great concerts. The first of these concerts showcased the considerable talents of Duo Nuovo (A New Duet):Terry Rhodes, soprano, and Ellen Williams, mezzo-soprano, both of whom are quite well known to Triangle audiences. For this concert they presented two sets of great duets showing off their impressive vocal abilities and their skillful interpretation of song texts of wit and sophistication. These pieces were followed by a generous offering of much-loved George Gershwin tunes and other unforgettable songs from Broadway and the world of popular music. For this part of the performance Rhodes and Williams and their talented piano accompanist Jane Hawkins shared the stage with a sassy jazz combo, Peter Lamb and the Wolves, whose hot playing stimulated the singers’ performance throughout the evening.

The first sets of numbers on this program revealed the personal and musical closeness these singers share. In their interpretation of Elizabeth Vercoe’s Irreveries from Sappho and the magnificent song group entitled Atrocities, settings of powerful, expressive texts by Judith Viorst, their voices are exceedingly complementary, which seems an appropriate artistic manifestation of the deep friendship between the two women. Their voices are vibrant with power, richness and warm color; both carry the most difficult vocal lines with intelligence and ease; both approach each line with the appropriate expressions, ranging from all the degrees of sweetness, passion, thoughtfulness, and excitement to a raucous sound which might indeed be uttered by an Eliza Doolittle; and both delight in interpreting various character types with voices of great flexibility.

The texts of the duets included in these two engaging sets of pieces focus primarily on the concerns of women: their often futile efforts to attract a man and discover love, the difficulties which can exist between a young man and an older woman, the fear a woman has of being physically unattractive and unwanted as she gets older, and her painful acknowledgement that she will never know the glories of success and happiness in any aspect of life. The first of the settings of Sappho’s poetry, “Andromeda Rag,” presents in sneering language and fitting music the obvious pain of a woman who has lost her lover to a so-called “hayseed’’ female’s ability to catch him without “lifting her skirts over her ankles.”

The Viorst settings, which probe these female gender issues in depth, demand from the singers even more artistic expression and deep understanding of the lyricist’s wit and sophisticated analysis of the speakers’ characters. I especially approved of Rhodes’ and Williams’ spot-on understanding of the speaker’s dilemma in “Facing the Facts,” in which they express the feelings of a woman recognizing that her life will be devoid of love, of artistic or material success, of glory, and of any effect she could have had on the course of history. Another very effective duet allowed these skilled singers to enjoy quite clearly Viorst’s speaker’s frank statement that, although she never has had the intention of selling her body, she nonetheless has the need to experience her most passionate physical needs.  This last number in the set was a most satisfying musical and textual way to conclude the first half of the concert.

The second part of the program brought to the stage the super-skilled saxophonist Peter Lamb and his Wolves: Jeff Crouse, drums; George Knott, bass; Ed Stephenson, guitar; Al Strong, trumpet; and Mark Wells, piano. Each of these players brought his considerable abilities, particularly some brilliant improvisational skills, to the music of George Gershwin and a number of other pieces from the Broadway stage.

The several Gershwin numbers were especially pleasing to the audience, who would gladly have listened to Duo Nuovo sing all evening. Although I liked all the music, I especially enjoyed the fine singing of “I Got Rhythm,” in which the singers passed the music back and forth and danced around the stage to the excellent musical breaks provided by Lamb on sax, Strong on trumpet, Wells on a smoking piano and Crouse on drums. Rhodes offered a hot version of “Slap that Bass,” with bassist Knott doing some inspired slapping. She also offered a “Summertime” which revealed the warm beauty of a voice which seems to know no limits, and Strong’s inspired trumpet playing and Lamb’s shimmering, rich sax work added to the loveliness of Gershwin’s great song. Williams’ exquisite rendering of “Someday He’ll Come Along,” with a musical break by the trumpet in a superb jazz improvisation, could only be matched by her passionate “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” with an inspired break by Lamb.

Of all the music Terry Rhodes and Ellen Williams offered to a delighted audience, I was most moved by Rhodes’ wonderful arrangement of Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns,” in which her masterful control, tender passion and expressiveness touched everyone. The evening’s music came to a close with “If I Sing,“ an inspired song from the Broadway musical Closer then Ever offered by the two splendid singers and pianist Jane Hawkins in loving honor of their fathers.