It was ambitious of UNC Opera stage and music director Terry Rhodes to forgo a medley of operatic excerpts and present an entire opera using dual student casts with piano accompaniment in Hill Hall. Her choice was of musicological interest, Il Matrimonio Secreto (The Secret Marriage) (1792) by Domenico Cimarosa (1749-1801), the work of one of the last of the purely Classical composers. The seldom revived work made a fascinating contrast to the widely familiar works of the more “Romantic” Classical composer, Mozart whose Magic Flute had been premiered only a year before The Secret Marraige. It is a commentary on the difference of tastes between our age and the Court in Vienna that Cimarosa’s opera so pleased Emperor Leopold II at its premiere he ordered it completely encored after ordering a supper served to the company. Mozart’s works were not so readily received; according to popular legend the Emperor once complained there were “too many notes, my dear Mozart, and too beautiful for our ears.”

The plot of The Secret Marriage reflects the Enlightenment’s penchant for what Bernard Holland, in a July 27, 1992 New York Times review, calls “erotic intrigue, thwarted couplings, and the absurdities such situations inspire” along with all complexities getting wrapped up with a happy ending. Deaf old Geronimo, a wealthy but untitled citizen of Bologna, has contracted a marriage of his elder daughter Elisseta with the Englishman Count Robinson. Upon arrival, the Count prefers her younger sister Carolina who is secretly married to Geronimo’s clerk, Paolino. Adding to the confusion, Geronimo’s maiden sister Fidalma is secretly in love with the butler! After many misunderstandings at cross purposes, Geronimo assents to Carolina and Paolino’s marriage and the Count is reconciled to wedding Elisseta.

Rhodes wisely and heavily pruned Cimarosa’s score eliminating minor choral parts and lots of recitative. Even with the drama compressed, the production ran from 7:30pm until 10:30pm with a 15-minute break. The original Italian libretto, by Giovanni Bertati, was based on the play The Clandestine Marriage by George Colman the Elder and David Garrick. Rhodes used an English version by Donald Pippin. A sparse set, consisting of a table, chairs, and screens decorated with bunting, suggested the interior of Geronimo’s house and shared space with a grand piano very skillfully played by Frank Zachary. The fine costumes were provided by Caitlin Rain and the PlayMakers Repertory Theater and added much to the atmosphere of the performance. Conspicuously absent was any member of the “guild of conductors.” It was amazing there were no major “train wrecks” during sextets and other multiple ensembles.

It is well known that the voices of male singers mature at a slower rate than women’s voices and this was evident in Rhodes’ very good student cast. All three bright voiced women singers sang with more consistently and evenly supported voices combined with more evenly controlled projection. Soprano Cat Park as the younger sister, Elisetta, combined fine vocalism with consistent acting. Soprano Sarah Dempsy conveyed the vanity and sense of entitlement so appropriate for the elder sister Elisetta. In the role of the old maid, Fidalma, mezzo-soprano JoAna Rusche added considerable comic flair and a myriad of facial expressions to solid vocalism. As the ambitious but hard of hearing Geronimo, baritone Risden McElroy exhibited a robust voice with some promising low notes which augur well for the future. Baritone Tommy Bastable sang the role of Count Robinson with good humor and style. Tenor John Charles Clark, as Paolono, had the most consistently clear diction and this with his pleasant tone foreshadowed winning vocal development to come.