You would not be likely to find a finer pair of singers to lend their “American Voices” (the program title) to help launch the second decade of Long Leaf Opera. Soprano Elizabeth Grayson and baritone Rick Piersall, with uncommonly able help from accompanist David Heid, graced NCSU’s Stewart Theatre for the penultimate program of a series celebrating American opera and supporting that genre’s LLO champions.
The two best-known audience favorites flanked the evening’s offerings. “Rhymes Have I” from Kismet served as prelude to the printed program. “Till There Was You,” possibly the most popular piece from The Music Man, received a beautiful treatment as the singers combined for an encore.
It would be hard to over-praise the dramatic effects that Elizabeth Grayson brought to certain of the selections. From Douglas Moore’s Ballad of Baby Doe, her “Dearest Mama” was heart-rending as she intoned “we must part forever....” She assumed the role of Rose Maurrant in Weill’s Street Scene. Here she touchingly asked “What Good Would the Moon Be?” — or anything else, for that matter — without true love. She played the fallen woman in “Glitter and Be Gay” from Bernstein’s opera, Candide. Her comic delivery was of highest order, and the demanding "Ha-ha-ha, Ha-ha-ha’s" were sprinkled throughout without apparent effort. In Carlisle Floyd’s opera, Susannah, she gave “The Trees on the Mountains” ("...are cold and bare") a level of pathos that was impossible to resist as she called on the lover to return.
In his opening remarks, LLO Artistic Director Randolph Umberger announced to the audience that Rick Piersall was suffering voice problems, what with the differences in plant life here and the flora he had encountered in South Dakota. But no problems were evident as he delivered a smooth baritone and also served as the program emcee. His “Let Things Be Like They Always Was” from Street Scene, and “I’m a Lonely Man” from Susannah, showed a masterly range with excellent stage presence. His main solo work of the evening was Colored Stones by Michael Dellaira, who was in attendance. (One critic has pointed out that this composer’s music, when studied closely, reveals “a world of depth and subtlety.”) These ten movements, generally referring to celebrated locales, were of a minimalist bent for the singer. Piersall was seemingly in his element with such spare scores.
Pianist Heid must be accorded great credit as he unobtrusively complemented both singers. The piano part of the Dellaira piece could in no wise be considered “spare.” In those movements he operated as half of a veritable baritone-piano duo. In fact, his playing here was so rich and vital that the work could well have served as a stand-alone piano solo.
Let’s hear it for Grayson, Piersall, Heid, and the people at Long Leaf Opera as they advance the finest forms of “American Voices.” And let’s support LLO and wish them the best of fortune for decades yet to come.