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Opera Review Print

On the Birth of an Opera Company

February 27, 2004 - Raleigh, NC:

Opera has had a long if troubled history here, in the Triangle, and despite our ever-increasing population, things have not gotten any easier for this wildly expensive art form. Part of the problem, of course, is that there are different kinds of opera, for different kinds of people. The social set seems to relish opera at its most ostentatious, seen (and heard) in fancy attire and in the company of like-minded souls. It helps, of course, if there are good singers, but famous ones are preferable. And since opera is (or can be) great spectacle, then it helps to have breath-taking sets, costumes, jewels (on and off stage), ballets, choruses, casts of thousands à la De Mille, elephants, and Stoki or Beecham in the pit. (Well, maybe not Stoki.) 'Round here, these tend to be bus-&-truck deals, although, in Raleigh, OCNC comes close. Then there's opera for students, as in workshops. There are sort of in-between companies, built on youngsters but augmented with imports for the primary roles. And there are the local and regional opera groups, as in the numerous Savoyard companies around the globe.

One example of the latter - and a good one - is Capitol Opera Raleigh, which is based on a model of reasonably long standing on the West Coast, and which put its toe into the local opera pool last season with La Bohème. The results were mixed, but the fledgling company was not discouraged, and it has spent its time since then building an organization and support and doing various things to raise money from the constituents and public it seeks to serve. It plans a two-opera spring season and several other events, and it debuted its production of Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel on the evening of February 27, in Meredith's Jones Auditorium. The results were, in a word, marvelous - and encouraging, too.

The work was given without cuts but with significantly pruned accompaniment by a pit band of nine instrumentalists. (It was not the conductor's reduction, as reported elsewhere; the "adaptation" was by Hamilton Benz.) They weren't the usual freelance crowd, and the playing was almost without exception outstanding. Scott Tilley, a veteran of many, many opera productions with his old company, Triangle Opera, and elsewhere, conducted. He's savvy, he knows voices, and he made even the chamber-like ensemble sing as well as the singers, who sang pretty well, indeed. Looking at the players, with all the women on the left (strings and piano) and all the men on the right (winds and brass), I thought about those get-togethers at the officers' club in days gone by, when the blue-suiters stood and drank at one end of the room and the "wardroom wives" talked family at the other.... Surprise! There was great unanimity in the playing, and even the places where the orchestra was on its own - in the lovely Overture and in the work's several interludes - were highly effective. In part, this was because of the reduced forces, which permitted one to hear all the essential musical strands.

The title roles were taken (on this occasion) by Jennifer Seiger, in the "trouser" role, and Jessica Hodges. They and their colleagues sang and projected the English words (by Constance Bache) admirably, perhaps in part because there were fewer instruments to sing over; that said, it was an delight to find the entire show absolutely devoid of electronic enhancement. The parents were Brian Lowry, whose huge voice might have dominated the scenes in which he appears, were he not such a sensitive artist, and Rebecca Peterson. These four are the main characters, but the opera is enriched by several others - a sandman (sand-person), sung by Hope Powell, a dew-man (dew-fairy), sung by Hailey Clark, and a rather charming and amusing witch, sung by Risa Poniros, who was cast against type with a vengeance, since if anything she is, personally, the epitome of the anti-witch. The fourteen angels sung about in the famous prayer were played by thirteen members of the Cary Conservatory of Ballet; presumably one was the fallen angel, or maybe the day's snowstorm, which may have held down attendance a bit, was to blame.... The "lost" children (hints of Peter Pan ) were played and sung by members of the Capital City Girls Choir. The opera was beautifully costumed, given on a stage that was minimally but effectively set and appointed, and tolerably illuminated, although the transition from daylight to darkness was not handily done on opening night.

Now we all know the story, and many of us know the opera. It works as a piece for young people and is often played as such, and partly for laughs, and there were some laughs in this production, since - among other things - that Poniros person was a pure hoot as Rosina Dainty-Mouth (complete with a colored tongue, perhaps stained by all that licorice, or maybe it was hotdogs or children - remember W.C. Fields' comment 'bout liking kids fine as long as they're properly cooked?). But Hansel works brilliantly, too, as a piece for adults, and it abounds with real-life issues - squabbling children, a mama who overreacts to them, parental concerns about income and providing for the kids, the fears everyone experiences at one time or another in new or different situations, etc., etc. And then there's the glorious music, which is firmly in the tradition of supernatural German romanticism that some think began with Weber's Der Freischütz and kept right on trucking through Wagner to the bizarre stage products of Alban Berg. (The Humperdinck, I hasten to add, is tonal, through and through.)

It's hard to imagine anyone not knowing at least the famous prayer, sung by H & G, and many of the score's other numbers have been excerpted, over the years, starting back in the days of early electrical recordings on shellac. What Tilley and the COR cast managed to do was keep it moving, so there was a sense of unity and line not always achieved in this work, and as a result the music and the drama and the ancillary stage business all came together to produce a magical and often moving theatrical experience. The singers, all of whom seem to be from "around here," and more than a few of whom have been heard in solo bits with our leading large choirs and such, were uniformly well balanced and uniformly good, too - there was, literally, not a weak link in this cast. (The lineup will not be the same at the 2/28 performance, since some roles are double-cast.) And, just to underscore the point, that Poniros is a hoot.

COR is onto something that we have not experienced here since the old National Opera Company folded its tent and moved up the road to Winston-Salem, and even it was never really a community effort. Its costs were, for openers, entirely underwritten, and it had long been sort of an import house, using young singers brought here by the company, in contrast the NOC's predecessor, known as the Grass Roots Opera Company, with which its founder/patron, A.J. Fletcher, and his general director/tenor, David Witherspoon, sang. Now, there's a whole lot more local talent here We have several good orchestras and a batch of fine choirs and real opera singers and dancers and stage techies and stick-wavers in residence. If COR succeeds, it will fill a major void in the region's culture. With two operas under its belt, and with the second one miles ahead of the first (according to reliable witnesses whose opinion I trust), and with a third one in the offing, this spring, the company would appear to be off to a great start.