An aspiring opera singer is somewhat like a football player: you can work out, practice and hone your craft ten hours a day, but unless you get the opportunity to play with the team, you will never acquire the necessary performance skills – plus, operas are enormously expensive to produce. The “you need experience but how do you get that experience in the first place” paradox has been met squarely and head on by Triangle Opera Studios (TOS), a non-profit organization whose charter states its purpose: “…dedicated to providing training and performance opportunities to talented singers in the community who lack the experience to appear in major roles with professional companies.” TOS previously presented a performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni in Raleigh, and now, with the generous use of the lovely facilities at the Eno River Unitarian Universalist Fellowship (ERUUF), they bring their company to Durham.

The conjoined twins of the opera world (often referred to as “Cav” and “Pag”) are the Italian verismo late 19th century operas Cavalleria Rusticana by Pietro Mascagni and Pagliacci by Ruggero Leoncavallo. They are inextricably linked not just by their relatively short length – in operatic measurement – but also by their compositional origin, the number of lead roles, their immersion in popular culture, and by the somewhat crude, but undeniably accurate, “one hit wonder” label for both composers.

The conductor was Wayne Wyman, a seasoned veteran of both opera and orchestral performances, who remained perched in a chair in front of the first pew with a piano/vocal score. The “orchestra” consisted entirely of one spectacular musician: pianist Kathryn Lewis. Opera without orchestra can be a tough sell, but Lewis played with such sensitivity and command of the difficult and sometimes awkward piano reduction part that you soon ceased hoping for some orchestral color. The piano was placed offstage, in part because the large cast in the relatively small space made any other arrangement unwieldy.

One could describe the plot of Cavalleria, but like nearly all Italian operas of the period it mainly involves love, betrayal and death – fill in the details. The leads alternated between the Friday, October 1, performance and this one, with the second cast featuring Bert Bridger as Turiddu, the betrayer, and Marie Miller as Santuzza, the aggrieved. Bridger has a commanding presence with a big, robust voice. Miller, for my taste, relied too much on a wide, unfocused vibrato whenever the pitch or volume increased. (Miles Davis, when asked why he plays with so little or no vibrato, unlike most other horn players, responded, “I’m going to grow old and start shaking soon enough.”) The cuckolded Alfio and the sexy Lola were wonderfully sung and acted, respectively, by Fred Rice and Sarah Ittoop. The cheating lovers die in a heap as the curtain falls. One of the musical highlights was the lovely, placid Intermezzo, which moviegoers might remember from its paradoxical use in the quite violent film Raging Bull.

Pagliacci was written by Leoncavallo in hopes of mimicking the success of Cavalleria, and his wish came true but not before he was sued for plagiarism of the libretto. A somewhat familiar play-within-the-play theatrical device is accompanied by the familiar clown, and, of course, sex and betrayal. The excellent mixed chorus, prepared by Kevin Badanes, that performed so professionally in Cavalleria again has a significant and immediate presence in Pagliacci. Canio (AKA “the clown”) was sung – on both evenings – by Michael Rallis. His cool, confident and vocally convincing portrayal belies the fact that this was his first complete operatic role – a ringing endorsement of Triangle Opera Studios’ charter and purpose in action. It is heavy baggage to perform, as many would describe, “opera’s most famous aria,” “Vesti la giubba,but Rallis not only nailed the big exposed notes but also displayed the pathos behind the mask. Erin Moorman, singing the role of Nedda – the clown’s wife who in the play is in love with Arlecchino – has a lovely pure soprano voice. The usual barely believable plot lines of many operas became even more complicated and entangled because of the Commedia aspect, but the well-executed supertitle translations from Italian to English and the overall excellent acting helped us follow the plot line.

The set construction and design was actually more substantial than expected and greatly added to the professionalism of the production – as did the quite realistic costumes. General Director Christine Weidinger is to be commended for bringing forth a vision that enables operatic hopefuls, most of whom are now out of the comfortable and nurturing confines of conservatories, to practice their craft. As these singers’ experience increases through this program, I’m sure we will be able to say “I saw them when…” as they expand their careers.

*Note: For a letter to the editor concerning this review, click here.