The much ballyhooed North Carolina Opera, a company formed when Capital Opera Raleigh and the Opera Company of North Carolina merged earlier this year, made its formal debut at the North Carolina Museum of Art with a “Casual Classics” concert of music from operas, zarzuelas, and Broadway, given in partnership with the NCMA. This latest effort to establish viable opera in the Triangle is at least the tenth attempt since the 1960s to find the key to making the art form work here. Here’s hoping this group succeeds – because it’s a fact that the region can hardly stand another failure in this artistic genre.

The concert featured three billed singers and a fourth who was listed merely as a “special guest.” The headliners were soprano Sandra Lopez, who made her area debut on this occasion, baritone Nelson Martínez, who was heard in OCNC’sPagliacci, and bass Todd Robinson, who sang with Virginia Opera in 2005. The “guest” was Daniel Stein, a tenor who has sung with Capital and Long Leaf Opera and was recently heard at UNCG. (Another guest – James Carlson – made his NCO “debut” conducting a single orchestral excerpt; he is best known as a member of the rock band Modena.) Conductor Timothy Myers, former artistic advisor of OCNC, made his debut as artistic director of the new company. And in introductory remarks, Fran Acquaviva, the outgoing acting general director of NCO, introduced the newly-named general director Eric Mitchko, former director of artistic administration of Atlanta Opera and, prior to that, an artists’ representative at Columbia Artists Management, Inc. At least this new operation will have people at the top of the heap who know something about opera!

But concerts are hardly demonstrations of total operatic competence, so the region will have to wait to see how the proposed 2010-11 season – yet anotherTosca, yet another Don Pasquale, and yet another Faust (in concert), together with a Valentines Day program (Brahms’ Liebeslieder Walzer) and a young-artists rendition of Britten’s Turn of the Screw – will stack up against the long history of mixed results here.

In the face of what’s to come, the museum concert, given outdoors in the Museum Park Theater beneath threatening skies (there was some rain as patrons made their way to the venue), offered some relatively unusual musical fare. 

After the national anthem came the formal opener, the Overture to Glinka’sRuslan and Ludmila, a chestnut often enough heard hereabouts among our community orchestras. Later in the first half, there was a reading of the “Polonaise” from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin for which the aforementioned rock guitarist was the crossover conductor (having “won” this opportunity in February…). In these works, the 49-member orchestra sounded reasonably well for an on-stage pit band. The amplification produced far less stridency and less spotlighting of individual instruments than was the case during last year’s OCNC concert in the same venue.  The singers were introduced one by one, starting with Robinson, whose rich, even voice was heard to good advantage in the “Catalog” aria from Mozart’s Don Giovanni (in which he referred to an iPod – or was it a Blackberry? – to call out “the list”). Martínez appeared for the Prologue to Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci, followed by Lopez, who sang the “Ballatelle” from the same verismo work. These singers made an attractive vocal pair in these two excerpts from Pagliacci, one of only two scores mined for more than a single snippet, and they were warmly applauded for their efforts.

At this point Myers introduced his recent discovery, tenor Daniel Stein, a singer who might have been new to him but who is certainly well known here. He sang the aria with the nine (or eleven) high Cs, from Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment, to considerable acclaim. Robinson then returned for “Le veau d’or,” from Gounod’sFaust; Myers, who introduced nearly everything on the first half (but nothing on the second), commented that it might be considered a preview of the NCO’s pending concert version of the opera. “Nulla! Silenzio,” from Puccini’s Il Tabarro, was one of the evening’s welcome departures from the popular operatic norm; Martínez invested it with considerable drama and feeling. The Tchaikovsky “Polonaise” was next, followed by the “Song of the Moon” from Dvorák’sRusalka, sung by Lopez in a reasonable approximation of its original language (Czech). The first half then ended with the baritone and bass duet “Suoni la tromba” from Bellini’s I Puritani, another work unlikely to be given here in the foreseeable future. (One reason for this could be gauged in this performance, which was something of a contest between the vocalists to see who could come out on top as the loudest and most long winded, instead of an exercise in “beautiful singing.”) 

Myers was tacit during the second half, which began with five (of six scheduled…) excerpts from zarzuelas – two bits from Lecuona’s Maria la O and single numbers from works by Luna, Roig, and Penella. Some introductions might have been helpful since, aside from the well-known “De España vengo,” these pieces are hardly routine items in the Triangle. (The music for the sixth piece, by Prats, didn’t arrive in time; an announcement to that effect from the stage might have eliminated some confusion among audience members who were checking off the pieces as they were given.) Lopez and Martínez sang the solo selections quite admirably, despite somewhat tepid accompaniment, and the duet – Penella’s “El gato montés” (from the zarzuela of the same name) – was delivered with flair by Lopez and Stein. Along the way, there were some attractive solo contributions from the orchestra’s concertmaster (Carol Chung) and principal cellist (Nathan Leyland) but, despite three orchestral rehearsals, Myers seemed for the most part adrift in these scores.

The conductor was more animated and involved in the closing numbers – “If Ever I Would Leave You,” from Camelot, radiantly delivered by Robinson, and “And This Is My Beloved,” from Kismet, which is based on music by Borodin, resulting in this concert having begun and ended with Russian (or at least quasi-Russian) music. This finale was sung by all four artists, and it was a bit of a stem-winder that brought most of the crowd to its feet. Calls for an encore were ultimately rewarded when Lopez and Stein returned for a true encore, a repeat of the “El gato montés” duet from earlier in the evening, after which Myers escorted the vocalists and Concertmaster Chung from the platform.

For an amplified outdoor concert, this worked fairly well, but the singers often dominated the proceedings, thanks to the amplification, and for best results one should hear opera indoors, without electronics. 

The lighting was fine, and the “official” photographers – presumably from the museum and NCO – were, by and large, unobtrusive. That wasn’t the case for the audience members with flash cameras – surely it isn’t hard to imagine that flashes aimed toward the stage during performances may not be in the best interests of the singers. (One of the flash-camera offenders was the company’s outgoing general director, who took a shot at Lopez from the second row, center, in the high-rent district, during the Dvorák aria.)

The new company was lucky, weather-wise, but the crowd, estimated by a museum employee as perhaps 1,000, total, was somewhat less than last year. There was of course competition elsewhere – a voice recital in Cary preceded this concert, and the NC Symphony’s “Summerfest,” in Cary – also outdoors – overlapped it. 

The program listed as sponsors Blue Cross and Blue Shield of NC, Progress Energy, and the Raleigh Arts Commission. The commission gets its money from the City of Raleigh, which is in turn fueled by taxpayers. Someone at NCO needs to read the grant contract to determine the proper wording for CORAC credits. 

This concert was billed as part of the “Opera About Town” program of the NCO. That series continues with mini-concerts at the Raleigh farmers’ market, resuming on July 14. See our calendar for details. And the NCMA’s outdoor series continues with the Red Clay Ramblers on July 24; details of that, too, are in our calendar.