UNC Opera Workshop Tackles the Music of Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre
by John W. Lambert
The remarkable composer Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre (1665?-1729) was the subject and the object of the latest offering of the UNC Opera Workshop, augmented by UNC's Baroque Ensemble, directed by cellist and gambist Brent Wissick. The entertainment, given in Playmakers Theatre (sometimes called "Old" and sometimes, "Historic"), consisted of a fanciful introduction to the composer and her milieu, followed by a severely truncated (but nonetheless long enough) presentation of her five-act tragédie lyrique , Céphale et Procis . This prelude, which in many ways suggested Strauss' operatic introduction to Ariadne auf Naxos , brought forth the composer (harpsichordist Elaine Funaro), her colleague Marin Marais (Wissick), the Sun King, Louis XIV (David-Aiden Mackey), his consort (Catherine Cheng), the librettist of the soon-to-be-performed opera (David Barton Harris), his uppity daughter (Kate Stratton), and assorted courtiers, lackeys, ex-girl-friends (of the King), and a flock of songbirds, primarily trebles. Since this was, after all, an opera workshop production, albeit one done in cooperation with the Ackland Art Museum and diverse Music Department academicians and performers, creating the sets, costumes, and lighting was part of the total educational package, and many of the performers were also credited in these areas. The chief dramaturge was Annegret Fauser, and music and stage direction were also credited to Opera Workshop director Terry Rhodes, to whom the performances were dedicated. The edition of the opera that was used was credited to Wanda R. Griffiths, with additional musical contributions from Dana Maiben. The show was graced with an exceptionally fine and detailed program. The opera's set pieces were performed in French, with English supertitles; the rest of the production, including the introductory portion and the narration that enabled the telescoping of what must originally have been an extremely long affair, was in English.
In the introduction, samples from three of Jacquet de la Guerre's cantatas, two on biblical texts, and various airs, duets, and other vocal works were provided. The singing was generally outstanding, thanks perhaps to superior voices to begin with and competent training. It helped, too, that some of the music had been given in public earlier this season. To these ears, the outstanding performer in the first section was Jonas Laughlin, but that may be due to the comparative rarity of good countertenors, of which ilk he is, at this juncture, an ideal specimen. In singling him out for special notice, however, I do not mean to neglect his workshop colleagues, who included, in the order of their appearances, Margretta Beaty, Sarah Brindley, Sarah Powell, Jonathan Rohr, Danielle Pecone, Heidi Fisher, Vannessa Isiguen, and Melinda Whittington. There were also some soldiers, a chorus whose membership varied with the musical requirements, and various supernumeraries. It was, in retrospect, sort of a mini-MGM cast of thousands thing, albeit with lots of doubling up.
The opera itself, which began after the first intermission, was presented in two parts, consisting of the Overture, Prologue, and Acts I and II, followed by Acts III-V. On December 5, the title roles were taken by Harris Ipock and Ashley Kerr, Laughlin played Nérée, Casey Molino Dunn was Borée, Christine Bischoff was Dorine, Brian Park was Arcas, and Aurore was Sara C. Oettinger. Many roles were double-cast, so attendees of the Saturday repeat heard other singers in some of these parts. Other participants not previously cited included Bryan Castellucco, Andrew E. Whitley, Jospeh Ahern, Adam Caputo, and Diana Chang.
The story is too convoluted - and ridiculous - to recap here; it was however a revelation in some respects, not least of which was that it hammered home that fact that stupid opera plots were not confined to the 19th century. In addition, many of the conventions of opera - dramatic vengeance arias, for example, hammy or foppish tenors, outré costumes and makeup (here, several bodies were done up with glitter), deus ex machina scenes (here, Aurore appeared in a grandiose bed, with oiled-up, muscle-bound attendants), and choruses for the grand finales - date back longer than many admirers of the art form may realize. There was lots of enjoyable singing, decently projected, the theatre provided good sightlines and reasonable acoustics, and the accompaniments - by Funaro, Wissick, and an "orchestra" consisting of a trumpet, two flutes, and assorted strings - never (no, not once) masked the vocalists.
"Old" Playmakers is a wreck, so here's hoping that some of the money the University is spending will be invested in giving it a facelift. Patrons were held in the tiny lobby (or obliged to wait outside, in the cold) while final preparations were made. Those preps included nailing up a large portrait in the lobby, with considerable banging. Restroom facilities are inaccessible for persons with disabilities, and the hall is basically inaccessible, too. The first seat I plopped into collapsed, and not from my weight. The paint is peeling, etc., etc. The general disrepair of the "historic" facility is, in a word, disgraceful.