Besides the composer Robert Ward and his wife, only a few dozen patrons were in the splendid new Recital Hall of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro’s School of Music November 30th for the first of three performances of his opera Roman Fever . The opera had been premiered by Triangle Opera Theatre in Duke University’s Reynolds Theatre on June 9, 1993. Librettist Roger Brunyate based the text on Edith Wharton’s short story.

Ward’s publisher’s web site reveals that, “In writing the opera, the librettist and composer were particularly mindful of the repertory needs of conservatory and university opera groups,” so the vocal roles are for soprano, lyric soprano, two mezzo-sopranos and a baritone, but my ears heard Friday’s cast’s voices somewhat differently. Quotes from a colleague’s review of the premiere indicate that a chamber orchestra had been present, but at UNCG the “ensemble” consisted of an upright piano, ably fielded by Music Director Heather Hamilton, and recorded bells. An actual orchestra was the only thing that could have made the production more enjoyable. The minimalist set consisted of two small tables with white tablecloths and a series of prints of famous Roman scenes along the back of the stage.

The skeletal plot, “laid in 1927, is set in a terrace restaurant overlooking the Forum where two widows and their daughters have met by chance. In the course of the opera, the full story of the widows’ meeting in the same place twenty years earlier is revealed.” All the singers had well supported voices that readily soared throughout their ranges with exact intonation. All were already experienced in other opera productions. Diction was unusually fine although I lost track of some lines in the big complex quartet. The voices of the singers of the mothers and the daughters, too, blended beautifully in their duets.

The sole male role, a singing Italian waiter, was aptly taken by baritone Sidney Outlaw. An allusion to the god Mercury in the opera reminded me of Outlaw’s hilarious assumption of that role in last spring’s UNCG production of Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld. His aria, given in a mixture of English and Italian, recounts a folk legend that had important implications in the widows’ earlier meeting and explains much of the plot. The story deals with two sisters who loved the same man. The jealous older sister sent the younger sister to collect flowers in the cold damp Roman evening. She contracted Roman fever (malaria) and died. On her own deathbed, the older sister confessed to her crime. While this myth played an important role in the women’s earlier meeting, its results were fraught with more than one O’Henry-like plot twist best left to future discovery.

The controlling and socially ambitious widow Alida Slade was sung by Abigail Southward, who has demonstrated a capacity for a wide range of roles. She impressed me in two performances of the role of Eurydice in last spring’s UNCG production of Offenbach’s aforementioned Orpheus. Based on an extended display aria in that production as well as some extraordinary soaring high notes in Roman Fever , I would classify her as a lyric coloratura soprano. She readily encompassed the wide range of emotions–high and low, light and dark–that the role demanded. Not having had a chance to read the Wharton story, I suspect that the author was contrasting the “money-grabbing ‘New Money'” of the Slades with the assumed privilege of “Old New York” represented by her “friend” and rival in love, Grace Ansley.

Recording booklets and program notes increasingly fail to designate vocal categories of singers. To my ears, Kim Brooks, who sang the role Grace, was more nearly a mezzo-soprano than a lyric; clearly, her range was lower than that of the singer of Abigail. At first I thought that Brooks underplayed the role of the securely established aristocrat, but her restraint paid dividends as the plot twists struck home in the closing moments of the opera.

Alida Slade’s daughter, the shy and rebelling Jenny, was sung by Tara Stafford. Grace Ansley’s daughter, the flamboyant Barbara, was sung by Rita Dottor. These were well-matched sopranos who handled their jazz age lines and a Charleston-like dance nicely. At first they seemed doomed to repeat the same competitive behavior their mothers had earlier displayed, but the superior libretto provided a different outcome.

Roman Fever is a true opera with no spoken dialogue. I would have loved to have heard the production with a chamber orchestra. The UNCG Music Department now has the best physical facilities of any of the universities that I regularly visit. The recital hall is a modern shoebox shape with a lot of wooden surfaces in the lower half and roomy comfortable seats. A multi-level parking deck is nearby and concert goers with tickets park free.