It was advertised as “A Bill of Two One-Act Operas,” but we got a third, of a kind, as a bonus. Prior to the start of the evening’s fare, Long Leaf Opera‘s Artistic Director Randolph Umberger presented a twenty-minute monologue that was part lesson on Greek mythology and part stroll down memory lane. It was a fascinating and entertaining description of the upcoming works that served as a wonderful appetizer to the real action.

The American composer William Bolcom (born 1938) is an innovative and prolific musician who is highly respected as a pianist, arranger, composer and proponent of ragtime music and little-known songs from the American musical theater, but for general audiences, he still somehow, unjustifiably, remains on the periphery of recognition. Commissioned by Carnegie Hall and the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, Bolcom, along with librettist Arnold Weinstein, wrote Medusa, a 40-minute dramatic opera based on the Greek legend that features hair of snakes, people turning into stone, murder, and beauty you can die for. This was the second performance of this work and the first in its fully-staged form.*

This is a virtuoso outing for the sole vocal performer, soprano Barbara Caprilli, in her Long Leaf debut, as well as the strings of the Carolina Chamber Symphony, brilliantly prepared and conducted by Al Sturgis. The text is twelve beautifully-conceived poems that can ably stand alone. Caprilli was brilliant as she constantly changed vocal techniques from talking to Grand Opera-ish, to a simpler style followed by Sprechstimme, and then back again. Except for some very limited movements, she confined herself to a position behind a podium, with the score in front of her, that with its red and gold design gave the appearance of the maitre’d station of an upscale Chinese restaurant. There were four hanging reflective panels suspended around her and cardboard cutouts of snakes, daggers and other reminders of the legends that would pop down from the rafters. A giant, lit up “M,” dangling above the stage, added an incongruous Disney-like atmosphere. This work is actually an orchestral song-cycle for soprano, and it is questionable whether this type of staging does anything to further the text, especially since it was premiered as a concert version with both composer and librettist present. The string orchestra was magnificent, playing a difficult score that can stand on its own but does not detract from the text. In short, this was an artistic triumph in every respect, with a possible reconsideration of the necessity for staging of any kind.

Some call it two-scenes, others two-acts, but let’s not quibble with theatrical semantics. Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Medium has stood the test of time since its premiere in 1946, and in its one-hour run time is an example of perfection of music and theater. Equally perfect is this Long Leaf Opera production; for my money, it resoundingly signals their arrival in the top tier of opera companies in the world. The set had just the right balance of functionality and realism for the story. Stage Director Don Rierson conceived and executed a style that was natural, believable, and drew us into the gloomy story as well as a Hitchcock movie.

The cast of six was without any vocal or theatrical flaws. Robert Williams and Ariel Reed, as Mr. and Mrs. Gobineau, portrayed the anguish of a young couple desperately wanting to believe that they can communicate with their dead infant. Reed has an exceptionally pure and expressive soprano voice that impressed despite her brief appearances. Kathryn Atkinson, as another wannabe communicator with the dead, had a lovely dark and ominous sound that even further enhanced the creepiness factor. The star and title character is Madame Flora, who was magnificently portrayed by Marcia Ragonetti. The Medium would fall flat without a good medium, and Ragonetti had that rare combination of a powerful stage presence and Oscar-worthy acting ability all supported by a powerful and expressive voice. She was quite phenomenal in the famous ”descent into madness” scene near the end – something which can easily slip into parody with a lesser talent. Deborah Engelsdofer, in the role of Monica, Madame Flora’s daughter, started off a bit timidly, but her projection and confidence built throughout the work. There was also fine acting without any singing from Charles Stanton, in the role of deaf-mute Toby, as he was either being beaten by Flora or made nice to by Monica.

For opera purists, it might be sacrilege to compare their beloved genre with a movie or even non-musical theater, but this production drew the audience in like a fine suspense film or a great straight dramatic play. You could follow every word, and the ensemble’s members seemed as comfortable with each other and their roles as if they had just given their 500th performance. The music is masterful with a mix of beautiful, lyrical arias, and accessible but innovative harmonies and orchestration, all performed with world-class expertise. The only drawback is that I did not see any cameras recording this. It would be a shame if there were no visual record of the event which put Long Leaf Opera on the map as one of the great musical institutions.

Long Leaf Opera’s Festival continues through June 29. For details, click here.

*Updated 6/23/08: The work’s history was incorrectly stated by Umberger. It had five concert performances in different venues in early 2003, then a fully staged mounting for two performances by the Cincinnati Opera in June of that year.