The final week of the Long Leaf Opera Festival included a single performance of Pulitzer Prize winning composer Dominick Argento’s Water Bird Talk in Gerrard Hall on the campus of University of North Carolina. An 1977 adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s 1902 monologue in one act, based on On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco and James Audubon’s The Birds of America, it is a chamber opera for solo baritone and orchestra.

Chekhov’s obscure little piece was written two years before the playwright and short-story writer died — and, incidentally, one year after marrying Olga Knipper, an actress from Moscow. The stereotypical theme of a shrewish woman, though politically incorrect, is still worth a few laughs. And, for what it’s worth, there are two points of literary interest — Chekhov offers us one of the earliest examples of “stream of consciousness” writing that Virginia Woolf and James Joyce so admired and adapted, along with the Russian tendency toward “sarcastic overstatement.” Regardless, Argento’s libretto is intelligent, and his music for chamber orchestra underscores the narrative quite brilliantly. Sung by baritone, Scott MacLeod, our unnamed “Lecturer” is an aging, henpecked husband of the mistress of a private school for young ladies.

MacLeod’s voice is strong and clear, his diction, perfect, and his acting, marvelous. Costumed in a frumpy brown pin-striped suit with crooked bowtie, he fills the role of the self-effacing lost soul with great sincerity. With awkward, stiff posture, wild gesticulation, and wide-eyed facial expressions, he won this listener’s affection from the moment he arrived onstage (immediately leaving to fetch his script…). The consummate straight man, MacLeod evokes our sympathy; we share in his great unhappiness, and when, at last, we hear the slamming of the door upon her arrival, we understand his fear and trepidation.

A compact chamber orchestra (violins, flute, clarinet, oboe, horn, trombone,
contrabass, percussion, and piano, with the addition of bird whistles — some
recorded), conducted here by Wayne Wyman, serves as sort of an “alter ego” for the otherwise emotionally distant character. Argento’s music underscores the melodramatic, with passionate sweeps of dynamic contrast, punctuated humor, word-painting, and even musical laugh tracks of soupy glissandos. American hymn-like passages provided moments of tenderness amidst the atonality. To compensate for the sound imbalance, the musicians were seated behind the audience and facing the rear wall of the auditorium. Despite the inconvenience, the musicians buoyed up MacLeod nicely. The strings were particularly strong, holding onto sustained dissonant clusters with perfect intonation. And one of my very favorite moments was MacLeod’s “air piano” performance at the harpsichord, which was well synchronized with piano.*

MacLeod’s voice remained strong as the hour-long production built to a climax. And just as The Lecturer’s anger approaches raging hysteria, the composer throws us a lifeline. Jolted into submission by his wife, The Lecturer turns his emotions off like a light switch and the orchestra plays on. Closing with a rising major sixth, we are left, curiously, on an optimistic note. I left thinking this gem of a piece should remain a staple of the LLO repertory.

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

*Production credits for this performance: Conductor and Stage Director: Wayne Wyman; Set Designer: Randolph Umberger; Lighting Designer: Andy Parks; Costume Designer: David Sexner; Property Designer: Laurie Johnson; & Musicians: members of the Carolina Chamber Symphony.