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UNC Greensboro Opera: Magical Double Bill of
Debussy and Ravel Operas

by William Thomas Walker

April 8, 2010, Greensboro, NC: It was a brilliant stroke for David Holley, the Director of Opera at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, to make a double bill of French operas. L'Enfant Prodigue (The Prodigal Son) by Claude Debussy (1862-1918), a real rarity, is a scène lyrique or cantata in one act which was premiered July, 1884. L'Enfant et les Sortilèges (The Child and the Enchantments) by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), with its spare score and dazzling combination of vocalism and dance, has been much beloved since its March 25, 1925 debut. Producer/Stage Director Holley and his talented staff pulled out all the stops, taking advantage of all the renovated Aycock Auditorium's stage equipment. Maximum use of dancers was made in both works. The high level of French diction from both soloists and chorus reflected French Diction Coach Richard Cox.

Conductor Jack Jarret kept close coordination between the very active cast onstage and the splendid sounding UNCG Opera Orchestra in the pit. Balances were excellent and important solos were assigned to different principal players in each opera. The sets by Scene Designer Randall J. McMullen were imaginative for both operas. Debussy's opera's set made a virtue of stark images either in profile or as tableaux. Each sequence within the miscreant's room or garden in the Ravel was more breathtaking than the last. Lighting Designer Kate Devine's efforts were excellent. Typical Middle Eastern flowing robes or ratty rags were apt for Trés Vega's costumes for the Debussy. Deborah Bell's fecund and ingenious costumes for the Ravel will be described along with the main characters in turn. Kelly Ozust's choreographies for both operas were very effective and contributed much to the drama.

In L'Enfant Prodigue, Debussy wisely omits the character of the faithful son who stayed at home and concentrates upon the return of the disgraced prodigal Azaël. After a fine opening orchestra section, his mother Lia sings an anguished lament for the loss of her son. His father Siméon chastises her continued mourning. A joyful peasant wedding procession passes. After hiding and singing about his regrets at length, Azaël collapses in the road. Lia finds him and sings for joy. His father eventually calls for a celebration and all praise God. Soprano Liz Frazer sang with great power and emotional depth as Lia, easily soaring over the orchestra. Her tone was even and focused. Baritone Paolo Pacheco brought gravitas and solid well-supported vocalism to the role of Siméon. The ringing tenor of Daniel C. Stein as Azaël was outstanding. His warm timbre was especially fine for French and his diction stood out among a cast that was strong on this feature. Dancers Diana Boyle, Mary Stiegelbauer, and Marie Parker did the stylized folk dances very well with Boyle outstanding in the showier leaps, etc.

Listing the virtues of this production of Ravel's L'Enfant et les Sortilèges could go on at exhaustive length! The plot focuses upon a particularly bull-headed young boy who has harassed every living thing about his house and has vandalized about everything in sight. Having sassed his mother, he is sent to stay in his room with unsweetened tea and dry bread to reflect upon what he has done wrong.

McMullen's design for the boy's room was very much Expressionistic with a wildly angled, crazily shaped fireplace and over-sized children's books. Bell's costumes for the inanimate objects and animals were terrific. Each sequence outdid the staging of the previous!

Mezzo-soprano JoAna Rosche was brilliant as the little boy, combining body language with an even, focused tone to bring the brat vividly to life. The rebelling furniture was done superbly. As Le Fauteuil, bass-baritone Edward Vaughn Clegg's deep, resonant voice was colorfully accompanied by a low, rasping contrabassoon as he expelled the spoiled child. Dressed as an armchair, he and soprano Liane Elias as the Louis XV chair La Bergère trapped the brat between their "arms." As L'Horloge Comtoise (the Grandfather Clock), tenor R. Kyle Melton was dressed as an aging grandfather with a clock's toothed wheels and springs in his hair. His rapid, almost breathless delivery of his fast paced song was a tour de force. Tenor Kelly W. Burns was dressed as a British Beefeater within a skeletal black outline of a teapot. His warm tone was well controlled and he brought out all the humor of the French-accented English lines. Hints of the foxtrot of American jazz and a whiff of Kurt Weill accompanied the Chinese cup which was well sung by mezzo-soprano Anne Claire Niver. She was dressed as a sexy chorus girl.

Soprano Joann Martinson combined vocal brilliance with considerable athleticism in the role of Fire. She was accompanied by dancers, the Sparks, who helped keep bright red draperies in motion. A flawless somersault brought her aria to a spectacular end. The choral ensemble and dancers who portrayed the 10 Shepherds and Shepherdesses were excellent. The showy dance sequences were done superbly by Dana Boyle. Bass-baritone Michael D. Jones did double duty, playing the violin solo as well as singing the role of the Shepherd Violinist. Soprano Tara Sperry paired a warm timbre and excellent articulation as the Solo Shepherdess.

Rosche's miscreant boy experiences the beginnings of regret in the scene with his beloved Princess. He has ruined the story book in which she is featured. Soprano Chelsea Bonagura was dressed in bright whites and beautifully brought out the sorrowful dignity of the child's first love. Tenor Daniel C. Stein combined masterful vocalism with humor in the role of the Arithmetic Man. His lively horde of numbers (14 youngsters) was dressed entirely in black, each carrying a back-lit number. This sequence was an audience favorite. They sang with tight ensemble throughout their active, fast paced section. The romancing of baritone Paolo Pacheco as the Black Cat and soprano Stacy Dove as the sultry White Cat was R-rated. Their palette of the possible ways to deliver "meow" was extraordinary!

Ravel's music for the garden was evocative and magical. Bass-baritone Michael Jones led the complaints of the three vandalized trees. Mezzo-soprano Karen Hayden was vividly costumed as the Dragonfly, a role that involved considerable movement while singing with even, focused timbre and emotion. Her bright red costume with two pairs of wings was spectacular. Soprano Elizabeth Westerman Yoder brought a bright, precise sound to the role of the Nightingale. The furious Bat was solidly sung by soprano Carmen Prather. Soprano Laura Dawalt's firm, radiant tone and intense body language fully conveyed the heightened anxious animation of the Squirrel. Between hopping and perfectly timed quick flashes of his tongue, tenor Charles G. Williams fully embodied the role of the Frog. The list of other, many unexpected animals could run on for some length.

The student orchestra played superbly in both works. Although the Debussy score dates more than a decade before Images or Nocturnes it frequently reminded me of those well-known works. Important supporting instrumental solos in L'Enfant Prodigue were given by Concertmistress Julianne Odahowski, cellist Brian Carter, clarinetist Daria Cheung, flutist Jared Edminston, and Drew Phillips on horn. In contrast to the full orchestral sound of the Debussy, Ravel's L'Enfant et les Sortilèges is given a sparse, chamber music-like accompaniment. Important solos in the Ravel were given by Concertmistress Brooke Mahanes, cellist Lena Timmons, clarinetist Jason Spencer, contrabassoonist Lamar Gaddy, flutist Julie Smith, and Mike Thomas on horn. Oboist Michael Witsberger, harpist Bonnie Bach, and trumpeter Ben Hylton made important contributions to both operas.

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