Calvary Moravian Church was well-filled with opera lovers for a concert entitled Viva Verdi – a joint presentation of the Carolina Summer Music Festival and the Piedmont Opera. Singers were drawn from the faculty of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Piedmont Opera, and the A. J. Fletcher Opera Institute. James Allbritten, the General and Artistic Director of the Piedmont Opera, played three roles – affable host, tenor, and director of the Viva Opera Gala Chorus. Pianist Nancy Johnston conjured up miraculous evocations of the orchestra accompaniments and introductions to the selections.

First came the spirited drinking song from Act I, Scene 1 of La Traviata, “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici” – Alfredo and Violetta’s initial casual flirtation. Allbritten sang with a warm and elegant voice and with great care for words. Soprano April Martin sang with a glowing tone and plenty of vocal support. Both singers, as indeed all on the evening’s program, brought all their acting skills to fully portray their characters.

From Act I, Scene 2 of Ernani, came “Ernani involami,” in which Elvira reflects upon her love for Ernani and her revulsion for her arranged groom Don Ruy Gomez de Silva. Soprano Jaclyn Surso brought considerable power to the role and made expressive use of dynamics. She is a candidate for a professional Artist Degree from the A. J. Fletcher Opera Institute.

Allbritten introduced and directed the Viva Verdi Gala Chorus in “Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate” from Act III, Scene 2 of Nabucco in which the enslaved Jews recall their lost homeland. Verdi composed this for an entire chorus in unison emphasizing a unified patriotic fever. This chorus became an anthem for the growing desire to cast out foreign occupation and unification of Italy. The Gala Chorus performed with great clarity and plenty of fervor.

This was followed by a selection from Act I, Scene 2 from Luisa Miller. In the aria “Duchessa tu m’appelli!” Rodolfo unsuccessfully tries to make his arranged bride, Duchess Federica, call off their wedding because he loves another. Allbritten fully conveyed the troubled Rodolfo’s anguish. Mezzo-soprano Janine Hawley brought a firm lower range to the role that added to bringing out her character’s growing anger.

Next came “Di provenza il mar il sol” from Act II, Scene 1 from La Traviata in which Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont, tries to soften the blow of Violetta’s supposed betrayal of Alfredo. Baritone Joshua Conyers sang this with a deep, rich, sepulchral tone and with such stage presence that he was rewarded with the longest applause to this point.

The first half of the concert ended with a selection that made full use of the church’s space! In the great sleepwalking scene from Macbeth, “Una macchia è qui tuttoral” from Act IV, Scene 2, Johnston’s pianistic prowess superbly suggested the extended orchestral accompaniment. Soprano Jill Gardner made a dramatic entrance holding a candle and ambling distractedly from the back of the church down the length of the right aisle and all about in front of the choir stall before her wonderfully harrowing delivery of Lady Macbeth’s unquenchable guilt. Her intonation and finely graded and expressive use of dynamics were marvelous. Gardner had just performed this role for the Chautauqua Opera last July.

The skill of the Gala Chorus with a complex part was demonstrated with “Fuoco di gioia” from Act I, Scene 1 of Otello in which joyful Cyprians sing a hearty drinking song about a bonfire to celebrate Otello’s safe return through the storm. The interweaving of the lines was beautifully performed. This opening selection served to lead into the great “Credo” of Iago which was vividly sung by baritone Robert Overman. His voice was rich and firm across its range and he fully conveyed the self-destructive evil of Iago. Overman has another juicy role as the title character in Piedmont Opera’s fall production of Rigoletto.   

It is always interesting to see how Verdi handled a scene that would have been tailor made for Mendelssohn. Falstaff‘s Act III, Scene 2 aria, “Sul fil d’un soffio etesio” is set in Windsor Forest where Nanetta is instructing her supposed fairies to gather round and frolic before tormenting Falstaff. Martin’s gleaming soprano scaled with delicacy, suggesting the Queen of fairies. Her control of dynamics and precise diction were excellent.

One of the great mezzo-soprano selections came next. In Act IV, near the end of Scene 1, the aria “O don fatale” from Don Carlo, Princess Eboli expresses her grief and misery because her beauty has resulted in the betrayal of her friend Queen Elisabeth and the endangerment of Don Carlos, the King’s son. In the playing of Eboli, Hawley’s performance was a splendid example of using a complete range of vocal technique for dramatic and expressive ends. The full gamut of Eboli’s anguish over her decision to actively help save Don Carlo was superbly conveyed.

The printed program ended with a trio from Act I, Scene 2 from Il Trovatore – “Non m’inganno.” In this scene both the baritone Count di Luna and his rival, the tenor Manrico, who has been serenading the soprano Duchess Leonora, suspect her of betrayal. Overman, Allbritten, and Gardner brought plenty of vocal fire to this intense scene.

An unusual encore capped the evening. Allbritten had the chorus line the two aisles and asked the audience use the full text from the program insert to join in a hearty reprise of “Va, pensiero.”

The Carolina Summer Music Festival continues this week. For more information, go here.