From its inception, Capitol Opera was meant to be a shoestring operation, a company where young artists could try their wings. It has no pretensions to “grand opera” although it shares the same repertory as the Met. Among the now three opera companies in the Triangle, it definitely has a niche: Long Leaf presents seldom performed opera written in English; The Opera Company of North Carolina stages grand opera with world-class performers, supported by the best locals available. With the National Opera Company – now Fletcher Opera Theatre – in the business of training potential world class singers at the NC School of the Arts, Capitol Opera has filled the local gap with pretty much the same level of performance the National provided in decades past.

So, as we begin this review, let it be understood that we are aware that we are reviewing young singers, most of them local and all still students – even one undergraduate. Since one of us (Elizabeth) has a degree in voice, we are particularly sympathetic with students who have high aspirations but who might have to settle for day jobs and dinner theater roles for the rest of their musical lives.

Thursday, May 26 saw the final dress rehearsal with the public invited for Capitol’s production of Gounod’s five-act bowdlerization of Goethe’s Faust. To make this maudlin bit of French treacle work requires three very strong singer/actors. In baseball a batting average of .333 is considered exceptional, unfortunately not in opera. But we did have one star, tenor Antonio Abate in the title role. Abate, in both his incarnations as disillusioned, decrepit philosopher and young rake gave an exceptional performance. A product of Juilliard, he has also received a Professional Artist Certificate from the A. J. Fletcher Opera Institute at the NC School of the Arts. And he showed himself to be a pro with a clear smooth tone across his entire range, excellent French diction and as good acting as the stage direction would permit.

Abate was joined by bass Laurentiu Rotaru as a sinister Mephistopheles. A young bass from Romania, trained both at home and working on an MM at the University of Connecticut, Rotaru is a stronger actor than a singer. His voice was fairly good but not nearly strong enough to project the domineering demonic evil, especially in the church scene in Act IV where he taunts the repentant Marguerite over both orchestra and Jones Auditorium’s pipe organ. We had the sense, however, that by the aforementioned scene he was getting tired and was “marking” for the rehearsal, even though there was a sizable audience. Rotaru was at his best both musically and dramatically in his lewd, sarcastic vein, especially in his Act III serenade for his protegé, where he ended up lasciviously caressing his lute rather than “playing” it.

Which takes us to Marguerite, sung by Anna Kirby. Kirby has a good middle and lower register but, as a voice teacher, we hope she would never allow her students to “close up” on the high notes as she did last evening. The role of Marguerite requires two very different kinds of singing: a liquid almost coloratura for the “Jewel song;” and dramatic lyric for the church and prison scenes. A pinched upper register can be a sign of nerves, singing in the wrong vocal register or just poor technique. We hope it was only nerves.

The four supporting soloists: baritone Brian Park as Marguerite’s brother Valentin; soprano Sandra Cotton as Siébel, Marguerite’s adolescent admirer; mezzo-soprano Jennifer Gaspar as Marguerite’s neighbor Marthe; and baritone Greg Honeycutt as the townsman Wagner, were certainly passable. Park was impressive for an undergraduate. Cotton’s thin lyric soprano was appropriate for the hyper Siébel although Stage Director Eugene Hutchins had her leaping and running around – sometimes aimlessly – with exaggerated arm motions, like a kid who’s forgotten to take his Ritalin. Gaspar’s Marthe gets little to sing but she acted her part well as she succumbed to Mephistopheles’s diversionary tactics while Faust was off seducing Marguerite. Wagner also has a very small role, but even so, Honeycutt’s voice was smooth and musical.

Some other requirements for opera on a shoestring are inexpensive sets and a reduced orchestra. We remember not so fondly Capitol’s first venture, a Bohème with a freebee string quartet and a piano. Fortunately, the company has come a long way from that. Scott Tilley, an experienced opera conductor, led a one-instrument-per-part ensemble plus piano and organ that played all the notes and stayed in tune. He was careful to choose some of the area’s most experienced pick-up musicians who didn’t need to balk at all those exposed moments. In general, Tilley kept their voices down as well but sometimes not enough to overcome a innate lack of vocal power in Rotaru and Kirby.

The chorus was excellent, made up of singers from Enloe High School and the Concert Singers of Cary.* And director Eugene J. Hutchins made good use of the broad aisle space in Jones for off-stage choruses in Acts I and V. Once they got onto the crowded stage, there wasn’t much they could do, however, except some the rudimentary peasant waltz.

The less said about the sets the better. A burlap and two-by-four job with a couple of walls made of old window shutters on either side of the stage to represent Marguerite’s and Marthe’s houses looked like what you see next to the runway at the Bombay airport. But then, sets are a great expense, and if this is opera on a shoestring you can’t blame Capitol for building its sets out of – well – shoestrings. The costumes were simple but passable. But the wigs – poor Kirby looked as if she was crowned in flaxen spaghetti that encroached on her face, Valentin looked as if he had cut his own hair with a bowl on his head and Mephistopheles had something that looked like dreadlocks drenched in oil. But the stars were configured right for the star; Faust’s wig looked quite dapper.

With all those caveats should you still go to see Faust? Well, yes, if you like the opera and want to support less-than-grand local opera. If you pass on this one, bear in mind that last year’s production of Don Giovanni was greatly superior. Capitol is dedicated to showcasing young local talent. Nearly all of the singers in this production were products at some point in their burgeoning careers of UNC-CH, UNC-G or NCSA. That’s a small field to select from, and sometimes the available talent is, as it was last night, variable in quality. Public support and corporate donations will only help Capitol improve its product.

* CORRECTION: The onstage chorus who did the bulk of the work was an auditioned group from the Triangle Community at large, as well as some singers from Greensboro. And nostra culpa about our sloppiness over the organization name of those folks from Concert Singers of Cary.

The final performance of Faust is Saturday May 28 at 7:30 at Jones Auditorium Meredith College, Raleigh.