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Well-kept secrets

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It was with good reason that bass Thomas Woodman, as the villainous governor Pizarro in Beethoven's opera Fidelio, jumped back a few feet when Dinah Bryant, as Fidelio/Leonore, cried out Tôd't erst sein Weib! (First kill his wife). Bryant packs quite a wallop with an enormous voice that belies her diminutive frame. In fact, strong, rich voices generally were the highlight of Triangle Opera's Page Auditorium production of Beethoven's only opera.

Fidelio is not an easy work to pull off, but it was definitely a good choice for a company lacking the lavish resources of the Vienna Staatsoper or the Met. Beethoven was not always particularly gracious in his writing for the voice and even less so in his ability to make his magnificent music fit the flow of the drama. Nevertheless, with singers able to combine fine musicianship with natural vocal talent and good technique, it certainly can come to life.

Woodman's Don Pizarro was the highlight of the production. In looks, voice and action he oozed cruelty, hatred and malevolence, strutting around in his uniform with a mug like Milosevic. Bass James Patterson as the well-intentioned jailer, Rocco, and tenor Douglas Biggs as Florestan were convincing actors as well as fine singers, but Biggs looked a little too energetic and well-fed for a starving prisoner. Patterson was particularly effective in his body language, visibly portraying his internal conflict between his compassionate nature and his gruesome duties. But Bryant was a wooden Leonore, unsure of what to do with her body on stage except stand there immobile and sing magnificently. Soprano Kay Lowe, as Marzelline, unfortunately had to force her voice to match the strength and resonance of the other singers.

The main weakness of TO's production was, as usual with opera in this area, a lack of rehearsal time. The orchestra under Scott Tilley was, of necessity--given Page Auditorium's pit--too small and often pretty ragged, as was the chorus, especially in the final scene, where they milled around the stage without really knowing what to do with themselves. And on Sunday afternoon at least, the computerized catastrophe with unsynchronized English supertitles--and occasional Windows error messages--was inexcusable, often eliciting laughter and seriously breaking the spell of the music.

The simple scenery was evocative, rather than realistic, and stark, as befits a prison yard and dungeon. The male costumes were effective and appropriate, but the costumes of the two women were disastrous. Lowe was fitted out with a long blonde curly wig, quite unlike any real head of hair, that made her look like an aging streetwalker. Bryant, with her stocky short body, had a uniform that dwarfed her further and a wig that made her look like Napoleon.

Where TO really fell down was in publicity. The production of Fidelio was the best-kept secret in the Triangle until a week before opening. As reviewers, we received no advance mailing and no press kit, learning of the production only from a newspaper ad the week prior to the performance. As a result, the opera played to a half-empty house which, considering the high quality of the production, was a loss to all those who were kept in the dark.

This double review was supposed to cover last weekend's two operatic offerings, Triangle Opera's Fidelio and the new Long Leaf Opera's group of three one-act American comic chamber operas. While willing to brave the remnants of the midweek snows, we were frightened off by the forecast for Saturday evening and were unfortunately unable to cover Long Leaf. The good news is that we now have a chance to fill the space with a rave review of two truly exceptional concerts by violinist Katie Lansdale on Thursday and Friday evenings at Duke's Nelson Music Room.

Mastering the sonatas and partitas for solo violin by Johann Sebastian Bach is often considered the rite of passage for a violinist to become a true musician. If so, then Lansdale passed this test with flying colors. On two consecutive evenings, she held her (unfortunately) small audience spellbound as she conquered the set of six works with passion, precision and intelligence.

The solo sonatas and partitas are a remarkable set, revolutionary in the history of the violin repertory. For one small instrument, Bach was able to write the most complex polyphony, including his longest four-voice fugue for any instrument, including organ. He achieved this seemingly impossible task by demanding that the performer utilize the technique of double stopping (playing two or more strings at one time). More amazingly, he created the illusion of more than one continuous polyphonic line by making the violinist play rapid broken chords and skip rapidly from one register to another, however briefly, to "mention" the appropriate sonorities for all the voices.

Most violinists have to put so much effort into simply playing the notes that they have little leeway left to worry about articulation, expression, dynamics or, in short, to just think about this music. As a result, most performances and recordings, even if technically adequate, sound wooden and mechanical. Lansdale, however, with assured fingering and magnificent bowing, pulled off a performance that would put many internationally renowned virtuosi to shame. With a precise and intelligent use of dynamics, she was able to define and control the relative importance of each contrapuntal line. Her ability to fade smoothly to an imperceptible pianissimo, keeping her bow steadily on the string without a hint of a tremor, was spine-tingling. Watching her play, you could sense her thinking about the music, rather than just emoting. Yet this highly intellectual interpretation was charged with far more emotional depth than one normally hears. And, of course, the sheer concentration of musical and physical energy required for performing this marathon is phenomenal.

A graduate of Yale, the Cleveland Institute and Manhattan School of Music, Lansdale was for some years a violin professor at UNC-Greesboro. She is currently a faculty member at the Hartt School in Connecticut. While she has concertized extensively, she has chosen not to pursue the rat race to stardom of her contemporaries Midori, Anne Sophie Mutter or Nadia Salerno Sonnenberg. She is a formidable reminder that there are many world-class musicians who have chosen not to base their entire careers on relentless touring and a few sparkling concerti. EndBlock

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