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Singing nuns

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Don't automatically turn your nose up at opera written for a school. Purcell's Dido and Aeneas produced one of the all-time Baroque hit arias, and the work has persisted in the repertory for nearly 300 years.

Between October 5 and 8, the Opera Theatre of Meredith College produced the world premiere of Felice, a one-act opera commissioned by the college with music by composer, conductor and pianist Benton Hess, distinguished professor at UNC-Greensboro. The libretto was written by actor and director Roy Dicks, currently classical music reviewer for The News & Observer. Based on a novel by North Carolina writer Angela Davis-Gardner, Felice is about an orphan girl brought up in a remote convent in Nova Scotia in the 1920s.

Replete with the typical monastic cast of a visionary nun, prissy priest, repressed students and novices, and a surprisingly enlightened mother superior, one braces for another grim melodrama like Suor Angelica or Dialogue of the Carmelites. Yet despite the oppressive atmosphere, the young and musically gifted Felice manages to navigate through delusions of would-be sainthood and sexual awakening to emerge--thanks to the mother superior--a budding career girl headed for a conservatory in Boston. Dicks succeeded in creating a fairly streamlined plot from a complex novel, which forced important parts of the book to be left out. But the bane of most opera librettos is their Byzantine progression; frankly, less is often more.

This is the second opera to be commissioned by Meredith, which is becoming one of the major voice departments in the area. Felice was well conceived, well produced and well sung--certainly a credit to all involved. Hess' score was challenging for the singers and primarily declamatory in nature, eschewing for the most part long set pieces. The nuns' opening and closing choruses were extremely effective both musically and in setting the atmosphere for the drama.

Particularly impressive, however, was Hess' orchestration. Using a chamber orchestra with one instrument to a part, Hess employed the various solo instruments and small ensembles to provide unusual color in accompaniment to the vocal lines. Under his direction, the orchestra never drowned out the singers, many of whom had young, light voices.

For its four-night run, Felice was double cast, so that we had occasion to see only one of the casts, this one with Laura Coker Llana in the title role. Coker Llana has a clear soprano, occasionally a little wide and wild with the vibrato, but she gave a fine interpretation of the confused young girl whose singing to a seriously ill, shipwrecked sailor sparks a mutual attraction. Her two giggly, gossipy companions, Celeste and Françoise, sung by Courtney Register and Diana Simpson respectively, blended well with her.

Meredith students were supported by several professional singers, including Risa Poniros as the mother superior, Ellen Williams as Sister Agatha, Timothy Sparks as the Abbé and Charles Schneider as the convalescent sailor known to the nuns only as "Monsieur." Poniros put in the best performance of the night with her wonderfully rich, resonant soprano, which contrasted to the ingénue Coker Llana.

The single, multi-purpose set of the interior of the convent church, with the mother superior's office and the convent infirmary relegated to the extreme left and right of the stage was made effective by good use of lighting. It formed an impressive backdrop, especially for the chorus.

Felice certainly deserves more than its world premiere run.

Last Sunday afternoon, the Raleigh Chamber Music guild opened its new season with a concert by the young St. Lawrence String Quartet, considered one of the most exciting and innovative among the first-line ensembles today. They gave a sizzling performance, although somewhat hyper and undisciplined in spots, of Haydn's Quartet Op.76, No.2 (1797), Janácek's Quartet No.1 (1923) and Schumann's Quartet No.3 (1842), though a little less body language and a little more finger precision by the first violin would have been welcome.

In its role as the sonnet of musical compositions, there are hundreds of new quartets written every year. A few of these merit and get farther than a world premiere, although as Mark Scearce--whose quartet was premiered by the Ciompi last week--commented "most of them end up like Texas road kill."

It might be nice to get more of a chance to cast a ballot ourselves. Would it be too much to ask our various music organizations to program in each concert at least one work by a still living, breathing composer? EndBlock

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