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Appalachian State University’s Opera Workshop opened a two-for-one special to local opera aficionados that will run the rest of the weekend. An early Mozart comedy and Purcell’s most famous tragic romance are featured, directed by Randall Outland. Both works are double-cast, and both casts include a mix of undergraduate and graduate students of all varieties of music majors and even a few from outside the Hayes School of Music.
Mozart’s Bastien und Bastienne is a charming work that pokes fun at the admittedly somewhat sappy pastoral works of the period. On Thursday, Krista Hays played the female lead, A.J. McCurry her counterpart, and Kenneth Kennedy, the role of Colas, the village soothsayer and all-around troublemaker. Both McCurry and Kennedy are undergraduates displaying surprisingly mature voices. Their comedic timing, especially in the scenes the two shared, took advantage of the inherent playfulness of the work. Hays’ acting would have been more suited to a simple romantic role, but her persona did allow her to act as the straight man for McCurry’s fooling. Her vocal technique was excellent, however, and made up for what was to be desired in her acting.
This singspiel was performed in English translation. While this does make the work more accessible to modern audiences, it would seem that a production of an academic institution would seek to prepare their future graduates for the multi-lingual world of vocal performance. It would have been a simple matter to keep the arias in German and translate only the spoken lines, which would have kept the audience up to speed on plot development without sacrificing the complexity of Mozart’s text-setting.
The blocking for both of these works was somewhat unsatisfying. Certain details, on the other hand, were carefully attended to and made the production more successful as well as subtly supporting the satirical elements of the work. When Bastienne lamented that she had only her sheep to turn to for comfort, the cotton-ball festooned creatures that appeared would have tickled the young Mozart’s developing sense of humor.
Dr. Chung Park led the orchestra in a sensitive and beautifully balanced reading of both works. Maestro Park had the good sense to stay out of the way of the continuo for Dido and Aeneas and slipped in and out of tutti sections gracefully while adapting to the sometimes unpredictable needs of less experienced singers.
Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is a very different work, featuring the stereotypical suicidal soprano who gets in a dramatic aria right before she dispatches herself. In this case, the aria is the much-loved “When I am Laid in Earth,” also known as “Dido’s Lament.” The orchestral writing for the fourth act is also lovely, although it rarely receives the same amount of attention as the vocal side of things. Katie Hensley and Drew Griffin played the title roles with a certain element of detachment, with Hilary Kearns supporting as Belinda. The chorus was strong and, like the orchestra, carefully balanced. The real stars of the night, not surprisingly, were the trio of witches. Grace Vaughan, Alexis Stegman, and Sydney Sides played the wild apparitions who dominate the second act and change the fate of the doomed lovers. Eerily glowing under a black light, these three wild women were hysterically funny and spooky at the same time. These roles do get the most interesting writing in the opera, and the challenges and opportunities that accompany small ensemble singing transformed these ladies (by incantation?) into a Purcell powerhouse.
In keeping with traditional performance practice, dancers were also incorporated into this work. It was unfair to the performers that the choreography demonstrated a total lack of sensitivity to the style of the period, of the music, and of the production itself. While modern dance might have suited a contemporary production of Dido, it was jarringly out of context in Carthage and Troy.
Despite some inconsistencies, the musical abilities of these students really display these works to their advantage. Come through April 7th for Mozart-inspired giggles and Purcell’s drama. The witches alone are worth it. See the sidebar for details.