When it comes to verismo operas (works about everyday characters and situations), most opera houses generally pair I Pagliacci of Ruggiero Leoncavallo (1858-1919) and Cavalleria Rusticana of Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945). Record companies have mirrored that packaging. But there are a number of short or one-act operas that merit exposure. Opera Carolina director James Meena picked one of the most colorful, La Vida Breve of Manuel de Falla (1876-1946), to couple with his current production of I Pagliacci. The Falla opera was given first, followed by Leoncavallo’s slice of life.

Strictly speaking, Falla is not a verismo composer, his musical style being closely related to that of the French Impressionists such as Debussy and Ravel. However, the opera’s subject — the hard lives and love among the gypsies and lower classes of the city of Granada, Spain — parallels the emphasis on “reality” in verismo opera. With La Vida Breve, Falla found his own voice as a composer and realized his teacher Felipe Pedrell’s goal of creating a Spanish national music based on a foundation of Spanish folk songs.

In La Vida Breve, the poor gypsy girl Salud has been seduced and is eventually abandoned by her wealthier lover Paco. Her grandmother, La Abuela, worries over Salud’s unhealthy obsession with Paco while her uncle Sarvaor has found out the cad’s plan to marry a woman of his own class. In the second act, the gypsies crash the wedding party. Salud threatens Paco but eventually stabs herself. Falla packs this act with folk elements such as the Andalusian song of the wedding singer and the insistent rhythms of the flamenco dance.

Opera Carolina, working in the Belk Theater of North Carolina Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, fielded a superb young cast of singer-actors from Spain and Mexico in the leading roles. The diction and intonation of the entire cast was exemplary. Dramatic soprano Olivia Gorra excelled as the love-obsessed Salud. Her robust and even voice easily filled the hall and she used a mezzo-like chest voice extension to great effect. This staging called for Salud to be onstage, in character, for long stretches without singing, giving Gorra ample scope to demonstrate her considerable skills as an actress.

Mezzo-soprano Korby Myrick, as La Abuela (the Grandmother), and bass Luis Ledesma, as Salud’s Uncle Sarvaor, sang with fine dark sound that was strongly projected. Tenor Israel Ledesma sang with a warm tone and an elegant sense of line as he spun Paco’s web of deceit about Salud. Another elegant and well-balanced tenor, Robert Mack, sang the important off-stage role of the Voice in the Forge. Carmela, Paco’s new bride, was sung by mezzo-soprano Katherine Jackson. Baritone Paolo Pacheco, as Camela’s brother, was impressive in his brief song to the young couple.

A special treat was the performance of flamenco dancing in the Act II wedding reception. At the post-performance discussion, Music Director James Meena drew attention to the special ensemble and praised their stylish improvisation of that whole sequence. The guitarist was Aris Quiroga and the wonderfully atmospheric flamenco singer was Tomás de San Julián. The stirring dancing was done by the Carolinas Latin Dance Company. A member of the company reminded me of call-and-response in black churches. The mostly women dancers were lithe and trim, and there was one typically showy male flamenco dancer who added much to the atmosphere of the performance. The Opera Carolina Chorus and the Charlotte Children’s Choir made vital musical and dramatic contributions to both operas.

Leoncavallo’s tragic opera recounts a tale of jealousy and murder during the visit of a traveling theatrical company’s stopover in a village. The clown Canio owns the company and is married to the much younger Nedda. Another clown, the hunch-backed Tonio, tries to force his attentions on Nedda but is rejected. He vows revenge. She takes up with a villager named Silvio. Tonio informs Canio but they fail to catch the lovers. During the performance of their typical commedia d’arte act, real-life passions inflame Canio, who is in the role of the wronged husband, Pagliaccio. Nedda enacts the unfaithful wife, Columbine, while another clown (Beppe) plays Harlequin. The threads of the play are broken when Canio stabs Nedda. Several arias are famous. During “Oh! Che volo d’augelli,” Nedda pushes aside her troubles by reflecting upon birds flying so freely. Canio’s heart-broken realization of Nedda’s faithlessness, “Vesti la giubba” is one of the most famous of all tenor arias. The Chorus of Bells, “Din don, suona vespero,” is just one of many delightful atmospheric touches.

Three singers sang major roles in both operas. Dramatic soprano Gorra was superb as the unfaithful Nedda in I Pagliacci. She portrayed the full and complex range of the character from the yearning of her song to the so-freely flying birds to her brutal rejection of the hunchback Tonio’s advances, her ambiguous love for Silvio, and her stark terror during Canio’s attack. Baritone Luis Ledesma also used a wide-ranging canvas to bring Tonio to life. His early approach to Nedda seemed sincere — a physically ugly person’s yearning for beauty and love — but that quickly turned dark and malevolent. His duplicity during the play-within-the-opera was marvelous. Robert Mack’s warm and even-toned tenor was most welcome in the role of Beppe, who portrayed Harlequin in the play.

This production of I Pagliacci was blessed with fine tenors. Todd Geer towered and was larger than life as the darkly jealous clown Canio. His powerful voice readily filled the hall and was used with great care for dynamics and color. Baritone Joshua Hopkins brought a warm and mellow timbre and fine sense of line to the role of Silvio, Nedda’s secret lover.

Conductor James Meena kept close co-ordination between the stage and his fine pit musicians, members of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra. All the delightful impressionist colors and rhythmic vitality of Falla’s score were brought out. Leoncavallo’s evocative interludes and accompaniments benefited from refined string playing and subtle brass. The horns’ presentation of the “Ridi Pagliaccio” theme was wonderfully burnished, with subtle dynamics. The woodwinds were a constant delight. Principal cellist Alan Black had glowing solos in both operas.

Stage director Chad Calvert’s managing of both operas’ dramatic possibilities was imaginative and effective. During the “postlude” discussion, he explained that, since La Vida Breve is so seldom professionally staged, there was no set to be rented. Opera Carolina finally was able to adapt a Cleveland Opera Carmen set for use in Charlotte’s double bill. A multi-level set provided ample variety for soloists and chorus, and a few stylized architectural elements suggested changing location.

The dramatic blocking of the chorus during the interludes of the Falla opera was very effective. So was the mixing and apparent chaos during the “Bell Chorus” of I Pagliacci, as the religious procession marched through the onlookers milling about Canio’s wagon. I liked Calvert’s unusual staging of the Prologue. Tonio was without his clown makeup and hunchback as he sang Leoncavallo’s credo in verismo style.

The lighting designed by Michael Baumgarten was unusually effective and striking in both operas. Marina Shanefelter’s choreography was effective. The twirling of the young children during Nedda’s “bird aria” was a nice touch.

Note: This double bill runs through 1/28. For details, see our Western calendar.

Edited/corrected 1/30/07.