Coping with crisisThe University of North Carolina School of the Arts put on a virtual performance of two one-act operas: Sophie Arnould by Gabriel Pierné and L’heure espagnole by Maurice Ravel. Each of the two pieces is approximately fifty minutes long, which means that they fit comfortably into a single evening – running in total the same length as Strauss’ Elektra, plus an intermission and a lot more levity.

Gabriel Pierné (1863-1937) was a well-respected composer in his time. Among his teachers at the Paris Conservatoire were Massenet and Franck. He succeeded Franck in his organist position upon the latter’s death and later became the chief conductor of the prestigious Concerts Colonne in Paris, where he conducted the world premiere of Stravinsky’s Firebird at the glittering Ballets Russes. He composed numerous operas, ballets, and orchestral works.

Sophie Arnould premiered early in 1927 and was based on a play of that name by the French playwright Gabriel Nigond which had been staged a few years before. Sophie Arnould (1740-1802) was a famous soprano at the 18th century Opèra in Paris, where she performed for a little over twenty years beginning from the age of 16. She sang leading roles in operas by the most important composers of the time, including Gluck and Rameau, and was known for the beauty of her voice as well as her numerous and turbulent love affairs.

The opera takes place years after she has retired from singing and is in exile from the 1789 Revolution. It is both light-spirited and autumnal. It consists almost entirely of an imagined encounter, in her salon, with the Comte de Lauraguais. It was with him that she had her longest-lived love affair and also several (illegitimate) children. The high point of the opera is when he discovers one of them, due to a letter Sophie is writing to their son as the Count arrives.

The performance was enjoyable. Virginia Sheffield brought a lightness to Sophie while also reaching significant dramatic peaks. One such moment was when the Count (Lawrence Hall) entered. Her reaction was a strong moment in the story. Hall’s voice blended well with hers. The ending was touching. Their love affair lies many years in the past and both are conscious of the ineluctable passage of time. The two sing together gently and reflectively, now united by the existence of the son whom the Count has just learned he has. As night falls, with its obvious metaphorical meaning, he is ushered to his room by the maid – appealingly played by Brennan Martinez – who has deliberately only made up the bed in Sophie’s room. However, he will be sleeping in a different room, alone. Sophie returns to writing the letter which the Count’s arrival had interrupted. She is changed by the reemergence of those passionate experiences of long ago and has a very different view of women to tell him now.

The set was ornate and richly evoked the 18th century. The costumes were rich as well, so that the visual was a full part of the experience. The lighting, which was otherwise the same throughout, took on evocative beauty at the end as night fell.

Pierné’s original orchestral writing is by turns lush and spare. The full orchestra was re-created here by a quartet of strings plus piano, which led necessarily to much less color. The opera itself is as much a conversation as a drama, and the spareness in the accompaniment tended perhaps unavoidably to emphasize the non-dramatic quality of the piece. Nonetheless, the music and characters in the final scene were memorable.

The second opera, Ravel’s L’heure espagnole was delightful. Ravel brought comic flair to the music and from the first notes, his rich harmonic language gave a feast to the ear. The set was now redesigned into the clockmaker’s shop where the hijinks unfolded. Margaret Ann Zentner entertainingly carried the role of Concepción, the wife-of-the-wandering-eye. Her character, rather than flirtatious, was continually bemused as her poet-lover Gonzalve kept launching into versifying, making no move to enjoy their brief time together in other ways. Her facial expressions were delightful; they also illustrate the capability of the streaming medium – of course already well-known via HD broadcasts – as these nuances would not have been seen by an audience at any distance.

Logan Webber soared as the rhapsodizing poet, arcing his lines beautifully with rich, full tenor resonance. Scott Lee stood out for his acting portrayal of the oafish Ramiro, who has no idea what to say to women, but whose impressive biceps and good nature win him the prize. Kameron Alston as the (unfortunately-named) clockmaker Torquemada (see the story of the 15th century Spanish Inquisition) made a comic impression, both through what he sang and his silly mustache. André Peele had pleasing vocal resonance in portraying the rich older would-be lover just not having his day today, and getting stuck in the clock instead.

The imaginatively-created clock setting gave the viewer a full sense of the surroundings to the 188th century story. The costumes again were wonderfully rich. The large orchestra of Ravel’s masterful music was rendered by an ensemble of six. The inclusion of bassoon, harp, and percussion gave this reduction much more color than the listener had experienced in the Pierné. The ensemble (conducted in both operas by James Allbritten, the artistic director of the Piedmont Opera) deserves approbation for keeping strictly in time around the ticking clock at a different tempo! One must also cite Allbritten and Jonathan Lyness, who in the Pierné and Ravel respectively, did the huge amount of skilled musical work needed to reduce large instrumentations for performance by the ensembles heard here.

The successful event had a number of flaws outside the stage experience itself. The voice types of the singers were not given in the program. The program also had typos in it, including in one case the name of one of the characters – though one should mention that the opera synopses, especially for Sophie Arnould, were well-written. Somehow the piano, prominent in the Pierné, was never named there. There were repeated small drop-offs in the sound, though happily quite brief each time. At the beginning, a running time was displayed until the stream would start, but the listener was not told that s/he would need to actually click at the start moment, rather than the stream beginning automatically. The half-hour intermission, for a streaming experience, was far too long, especially considering that the cast for the second opera was different, and the overall construction of the set very similar.

All of this illustrates that the streaming medium is a technology taking time to be fully mastered. But the technology gave viewers in far-flung places the opportunity to see an opera performance of substantial artistic strength that they could not have otherwise experienced. That was a pleasure and a contribution to our musical life.

This double-bill repeats Sunday, May 9. See our sidebar for details.