04 April 2022

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Mark Lanz Weiser & Amy S. Punt — GALAXIES IN HER EYES (D. Thompson-Brewer, L. Kesselman, A. L. Bottoms, S. Nordin; High Point University, 3 April 2022)

IN REVIEW: the cast of High Point University's world-première production of Mark Lanz Weiser's and Amy S. Punt's GALAXIES IN HER EYES, April 2022 [Photograph by Lee Adams, © by High Point University]MARK LANZ WEISER (born 1968) and AMY S. PUNT (born 1987): Galaxies in Her Eyes [WORLD PREMIÈRE] – Diana Thompson-Brewer (Eden), Lindsay Kesselman (Ada Lovelace), Amanda Lynn Bottoms (Katherine Johnson), Sarah Nordin (Annie Jump Cannon); Fabrice Dharamraj (violin 1), Emilia Sharpe (violin 2), Simon Ertz (viola), Laura Shirley (cello), PG Hazard (piano); Karen Ní Bhroin, conductor [Scott MacLeod, producer; Kristine McIntyre, director; Kathy Maxwell, graphics and lighting designer; Jason Estrada, costume and makeup designer; High Point University Department of Music, Culp Planetarium, High Point, North Carolina, USA; Sunday, 3 April 2022]

Many of the earliest human endeavors known to history were attempts to understand or connect with the cosmos. From the inception of cognition, man has sought inspiration and solace in the stars, marveling at the unfathomable expanse of space and contemplating the possibility that, somewhere among distant realms, other beings exist and turn their eyes towards Earth. Ancient mythologies gave constellations terrestrial identities. Mesoamerican cultures found in the motions of the heavens harbingers of the future. The lives of aboriginal peoples were guided by celestial signs. Having harnessed the navigational power of the stars to explore all corners of this planet, humanity looked upward, daring to dream of ascending into the entrancing void.

Just as the call of the sea resounds in Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Riders to the Sea and Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes and Billy Budd, the spellbinding voice of space sings in every moment of composer Mark Lanz Weiser’s and librettist Amy S. Punt’s opera Galaxies in Her Eyes. Frequent collaborators, composer and librettist melded their melodies and poetry into a single, indivisible entity that made of an enterprising girl’s fascination with space an engrossing theatrical experience. Punt’s libretto communicated the heroine’s youthful zeal with welcome concision and straightforwardness, curiosity emerging from the character’s thoughts rather than from poetic conceits. Crucially, the words were credible as those of a witty young lady and the historical figures with whom she engages, and Weiser’s musical treatment of them effectuated textual clarity.

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) mezzo-soprano AMANDA LYNN BOTTOMS as Katherine Johnson, soprano DIANA THOMPSON-BREWER as Eden, and soprano LINDSAY KESSELMAN as Ada Lovelace in High Point University's world-première production of Mark Lanz Weiser's and Amy S. Punt's GALAXIES IN HER EYES, April 2022 [Photograph by Lee Adams, © by High Point University]Code talkers: (from left to right) mezzo-soprano Amanda Lynn Bottoms as Katherine Johnson, soprano Diana Thompson-Brewer as Eden, and soprano Lindsay Kesselman as Ada Lovelace in High Point University’s world-première production of Mark Lanz Weiser’s and Amy S. Punt’s Galaxies in Her Eyes, April 2022
[Photograph by Lee Adams, © by High Point University]

Weiser’s score takes the listener on a riveting, intensely moving journey through the galaxies that the opera’s heroine longs to visit. In both musical structure and subject matter, there are parallels between Galaxies in Her Eyes and Philip Glass’s Galileo Galilei. Momentum is provided by an elastic use of ostinati, over which vocal lines take flight as harmonies intertwine with tonal ambiguity that harkens back to Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten. Weiser’s writing for string quartet follows the model of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht in integrating bewitching lyricism with bracing dissonances. Influences past and present are absorbed into Weiser’s unique musical language, which in Galaxies in Her Eyes metamorphoses complex code and equations into sounds of simple beauty.

Presenting the professional world première of Galaxies in Her Eyes in High Point University's 125-seat Culp Planetarium was a fortuitous union of work and venue with few equals in operatic history, one made possible by the espousal of the planetarium’s director, astrophysicist Dr. Brad Barlow. Produced with a singer’s instincts and insightfulness by HPU Associate Professor of Music Dr. Scott MacLeod, the staging lifted Punt’s words and Weiser’s music from the page with a level of immediacy rare in any art form. Bringing her concept for the opera to fruition, director Kristine McIntyre resourcefully transformed every spatial limitation into a strength, capitalizing on the visual splendors of Kathy Maxwell’s stunning projections and lighting designs, Dr. Barlow’s inventive graphic and programming schematics, and Jason Estrada’s elegant costume and makeup creations to fashion an atmosphere that was both seemingly infinite and palpably intimate. The ingenuity with which the setting was incorporated into the opera’s narrative was incredible, the visual stimuli of celestial bodies and pioneering titans of mathematics, physics, and astronomy assimilating the audience’s collective dreams of space into the opera’s context.

IN REVIEW: soprano LINDSAY KESSELMAN as Ada Lovelace in High Point University's world-première production of Mark Lanz Weiser's and Amy S. Punt's GALAXIES IN HER EYES, April 2022 [Photograph by Lee Adams, © by High Point University]Out of this world: soprano Lindsay Kesselman as Ada Lovelace in High Point University’s world-première production of Mark Lanz Weiser’s and Amy S. Punt’s Galaxies in Her Eyes, April 2022
[Photograph by Lee Adams, © by High Point University]

Concealed behind the planetarium’s dome, the string quartet drawn from the ranks of the Winston-Salem Symphony—violinists Fabrice Dharamraj and Emilia Sharpe, violist Simon Ertz, and cellist Laura Shirley—and pianist PG Hazard played superbly under the direction of conductor Karen Ní Bhroin. Even with technological assistance and modest musical forces, piloting a performance in such a non-traditional venue generated uncommon challenges. Ní Bhroin’s experience as Assistant Conductor of the Winston-Salem Symphony was invaluable, her knowledge of diverse repertoire begetting a reading of Galaxies in Her Eyes in which the facets of Weiser’s music coruscated. Serving as the nucleus around which the string players’ sounds whizzed and whispered, Hazard managed the keyboard’s transitions from piano to celesta virtuosically, her technical expertise supporting interpretive sagacity. Conductor and instrumentalists ensured that very wonder of the opera’s visual staging was matched by a musical detail of equal brilliance.

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) mezzo-soprano SARAH NORDIN as Annie Jump Cannon, soprano DIANA THOMPSON-BREWER as Eden, and soprano LINDSAY KESSELMAN as Ada Lovelace in High Point University's world-première production of Mark Lanz Weiser's and Amy S. Punt's GALAXIES IN HER EYES, April 2022 [Photograph by Lee Adams, © by High Point University]Across the spectrum: (from left to right) mezzo-soprano Sarah Nordin as Annie Jump Cannon, soprano Diana Thompson-Brewer as Eden, and soprano Lindsay Kesselman as Ada Lovelace in High Point University’s world-première production of Mark Lanz Weiser’s and Amy S. Punt’s Galaxies in Her Eyes, April 2022
[Photograph by Lee Adams, © by High Point University]

Separated from her mother during a stargazing excursion, the adolescent Eden awakens in the company of Augusta Ada Byron King, Countess Lovelace, the significance of whose contributions to Charles Babbage’s long-celebrated mathematical work has only been fully recognized in the past half-century. Vibrantly portrayed in this production of Galaxies in Her Eyes by soprano Lindsay Kesselman, Weiser’s and Punt’s Lady Lovelace rejoices in her eccentricity, taking no notice of the differences between them as she affectionately befriends the dazed Eden. Kesselman sang intrepidly, mastering the part’s angular writing and wide intervals with unflinching commitment and finessing melodic lines as though she were interpreting a Schubert Lied. Paralleling Eden’s odyssey, Kesselman limned the pathos of Lady Lovelace’s desire to find her own mother, but there was also humor in moments like her rejoinder when accused by Eden of being bossy that ‘it is pronounced busy.’ The soprano’s vocalism reveled in the pure joy of singing, heightening a characterization that exuded the gratifying fulfillment of mathematical computation.

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) soprano DIANA THOMPSON-BREWER as Eden, mezzo-soprano SARAH NORDIN as Annie Jump Cannon, and mezzo-soprano AMANDA LYNN BOTTOMS as Katherine Johnson in High Point University's world-première production of Mark Lanz Weiser's and Amy S. Punt's GALAXIES IN HER EYES, April 2022 [Photograph by Lee Adams, © by High Point University]Sisters in science: (from left to right) soprano Diana Thompson-Brewer as Eden, mezzo-soprano Sarah Nordin as Annie Jump Cannon, and mezzo-soprano Amanda Lynn Bottoms as Katherine Johnson in High Point University’s world-première production of Mark Lanz Weiser’s and Amy S. Punt’s Galaxies in Her Eyes, April 2022
[Photograph by Lee Adams, © by High Point University]

Vocally and dramatically, mezzo-soprano Amanda Lynn Bottoms’s depiction of Katherine Coleman Johnson, one of the first women of color employed in scientific work by NASA and a central focus of the book and feature film Hidden Figures, was captivating, the character’s sisterly protectiveness towards Eden allied with irrepressible pride in her work. The sequence in which Johnson describes the development of NASA’s earliest computer coding was the performance’s most thrilling scene, Bottoms’s singing and acting bringing the too-long-unheralded genius to life with extraordinary specificity, as though archival footage of Johnson herself were set to music. Her understated utterance of ‘One day, it hit me’ imparted the innate humility of her portrayal. Suffused with benevolent warmth when interacting with Eden, Bottoms’s voice blazed excitingly when Johnson recounted her work with fifty thousand equations. Bottoms’s garnet-hued timbre was easily distinguished in ensembles, in which she delivered Johnson’s lines fervently, and, even when she was obscured by darkness, her presence was unmistakable.

The third of the trailblazing ladies who aid the adolescent Eden in finding her own path to the stars, Annie Jump Cannon, collaborated with colleagues at Harvard University on a system of categorizing stars that enabled all future space exploration by expanding scientists’ understanding of intergalactic evolution. The importance of Cannon’s accomplishments was honored by the powerful singing of mezzo-soprano Sarah Nordin. The historical Cannon was surely a formidable woman, a noted suffragist in addition to her scientific work, and Nordin brought her to the operatic stage with cyclonic intensity, the columnar firmness of the voice effortlessly projecting the lady’s indomitable spirit into the planetarium. On some levels, Eden’s three historical forebears represent aspects of a single personality, Ada Lovelace personifying playful precocity and Katherine Johnson embodying studious sobriety. As sung by Nordin, Cannon was the voice of advocacy and self-reliance. A voice such as hers cannot be ignored, and the singer’s performance cogently communicated the gravitas of both the character and the opera’s message of progress through self-improvement and esteem for innovators of the past.

IN REVIEW: soprano DIANA THOMPSON-BREWER as Eden in High Point University's world-première production of Mark Lanz Weiser's and Amy S. Punt's GALAXIES IN HER EyES, April 2022 [Photograph by Lee Adams, © by High Point University]At the controls: soprano Diana Thompson-Brewer as Eden in High Point University’s world-première production of Mark Lanz Weiser’s and Amy S. Punt’s Galaxies in Her Eyes, April 2022
[Photograph by Lee Adams, © by High Point University]

Eden, the youngster whose misadventure precipitates the time-defying events of Galaxies in Her Eyes, is a cousin of the eponymous protagonists of Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors and Rachel Portman’s The Little Prince, but soprano Diana Thompson-Brewer made Eden a unique character, a girl recognizably like and absolutely unlike any other. From the start of Eden’s expedition, Thompson-Brewer sang Weiser’s music and Punt’s words with disarming sincerity. Eden’s reactions to each of her exchanges with her mathematical ancestors were astutely differentiated, but her yearning for her mother was omnipresent in the soprano’s performance.

Eden is no ordinary operatic heroine, but Thompson-Brewer approached her music with the same concentration that she devotes to rôles like Mozart’s Königin der Nacht, Donizetti’s Lucia, and Strauss’s Zerbinetta. Eden’s vocal lines make relatively modest demands by comparison, but Thompson-Brewer left nothing to chance, her singing demonstrating the confidence of preparedness. She managed in the opera’s brief duration to forge a richly-detailed depiction of Eden, culminating in an uplifting realization of the girl’s dream to land on the surface of Mars. The revelation in the opera’s final scene that Eden’s mother had died, the loving daughter singing that her father had done his best but could not fill her mother’s absence, was all the more devastating for being fleeting. Eden’s trek began as a girl’s physical quest and ended as a gloriously independent woman’s mission to reconnect to the mother who nurtured her dreams. Along the way, Thompson-Brewer’s singing shone as radiantly as the constellations Eden revered.

There is no chorus in Galaxies in Her Eyes, but some of the most stirring music in Sunday’s performance was the chorus of expressions of amazement from the many children in the capacity audienc​e. Their adult companions responded to the opera no less exultantly, succumbing to music’s faculty for marginalizing the differences that separate people. In only fifty minutes, the galaxies that glimmered in Eden’s eyes colonized the audience’s hearts.

02 April 2022

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Bedřich Smetana — PRODANÁ NEVĚSTA (C. Griffin, W. Edwards, R. Powell, Z. Taylor, R. A. Garcia, D. L. Dorsett, D. Grimm, P. Wheeler, M. Adams, C. McCrea, K. Whitton; UNCG Opera Theatre, 31 March 2022)

IN REVIEW: the cast of UNCG Opera Theatre's 2022 production of Bedřich Smetana's PRODANÁ NEVĚSTA [Photograph © by UNCG Opera Theatre]BEDŘRICH SMETANA (1824 – 1884): Prodaná nevěsta – Claire Griffin (Mařenka), William Edwards (Jeník), Reginald Powell (Kecal), Zachary Taylor (Vašek), Rafael Alejandro Garcia (Krušina), Danielle Lee Dorsett (Ludmila), Douglas Grimm (Mícha), Peyton Wheeler (Háta), Michael Adams (Esmeralda), Collin McCrea (Principal), Kyle Whitton (Indian); UNCG Opera Theatre Chorus and Orchestra; Peter Perret, conductor [David Holley, Producer and Stage Director; Michael Job, Choreographer; Jeff Neubauer, Lighting Designer and Technical Director; Feyden Jones, Wig and Makeup Designer; UNCG Opera Theatre, UNCG Auditorium, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Greensboro, North Carolina, USA; Thursday, 31 March 2022]

Born near the boundary between Bohemia and Moravia during an era in which his native land was ruled by Habsburg Austria, Bedřich Smetana was an early champion of Czech nationalism in music, a figure whose endeavors to liberate his people from foreign domination paralleled those of the titular hero of his 1868 opera Dalibor. Fascinatingly, the circumstances of his time dictated that Smetana was seldom exposed to Czech language and traditions in his youth, the necessity of coexisting with Bohemia’s Austrian lords yielding a prevalence of Teutonic culture throughout the Habsburg realms. This early suppression of the cultural heritage of his homeland perhaps intensified Smetana’s commitment to developing a singular Czech identity in his music.

Grateful as any artist is for a work to receive widespread acclaim, Smetana would likely have been disappointed to observe that, in the quarter-century following his death in 1884, it was in German translation as Die verkaufte Braut that his second opera, Prodaná nevěsta, captivated audiences throughout Europe and North America. [More than a century after Prodaná nevěsta’s 1909 Metropolitan Opera première, in which Emmy Destinn portrayed Mařenka auf Deutsch, the opera has never been performed by the company in librettist Karel Sabina’s original Czech.] Nuances of Czech linguistics and culture are integral components of Prodaná nevěsta’s structure and ethos, but the opera’s success in other languages is indicative of the quality of Smetana’s music.

Sung in Marian Farquhar’s English translation, UNCG Opera Theatre’s staging of Prodaná nevěsta convincingly transformed the Gate City into a vibrant Czech village. Taking advantage of every visual stimulus of the Grosh Backdrops and Tobias Lake Studio scenic designs, as redolent of the Cotswolds as of Bohemia, and Eastern Costume Company’s costumes, producer and stage director David Holley extracted the plentiful charm from Smetana’s score without perpetuating the uncomfortable, unnecessary, and unwarranted stereotypes that have afflicted some productions of the opera. His own career as a singer always guiding his direction, Holley achieved a commendable balance between the opera’s humor and humanity, the comedy realized rousingly but sensitively.

Jeff Neubauer’s finely-judged lighting designs and technical direction ensured that the observer was always mindful, even in moments of greatest hilarity, that the future happiness of simple, good-natured people was imperiled. Rustic sophistication suffused Michael Job’s rejuvenation of choreography first devised for UNCG’s 2009 production of Prodaná nevěsta, depicting common folk at leisure whose lack of formal training is reflected in clever handling of the opera’s celebrated dances. Too many of today’s opera productions are undermined by staging elements that are contradictory rather than complementary, but this Bartered Bride was distinguished by a discernible unity of vision that focused on drawing the audience into the heart of Smetana’s lovingly-crafted paean to Bohemian life.

IN REVIEW: the cast of UNCG Opera Theatre's 2022 production of Bedřich Smetana's PRODANÁ NEVĚSTA [Photograph © by UNCG Opera Theatre]Village at play: the cast of UNCG Opera Theatre’s 2022 production of Bedřich Smetana’s Prodaná nevěsta
[Photograph © by UNCG Opera Theatre]

Music Director of the Winston-Salem Symphony from 1978 until 2004, renowned conductor Peter Perret returned to UNCG Auditorium three years after pacing UNCG Opera Theatre’s enchanting production of Verdi’s Falstaff to preside over this staging of Prodaná nevěsta. The artful command of orchestral detail, no less impressive in the orchestral reduction employed for this production than in Smetana’s full orchestrations, and coordination of comedic timing between podium and stage that served Verdi so well were also engendered an energetic, effervescent reading of Smetana’s score.

Under Perret’s leadership, the opera’s sparkling Overture, virtually a symphonic scherzo with much in common with Mozart’s Overture to Le nozze di Figaro, was brilliantly played by the production’s orchestra, and each subsequent instrumental number—the Act One Polka and the comedians’ March (a piece that must have been in Leoncavallo’s mind as he composed his music for the theatrical troupe’s entrance in Pagliacci) and Skočná in Act Three [the popular Furiant in Act Two was omitted]—benefited from the musicians’ dedication and increasing mastery of Smetana’s musical language. Surely responding both to Perret’s guidance and to the beauty of the composer’s music, each instrument was played with eloquence and virtuosity. Perret shaped the opera’s lyrical passages with suavity, engrossingly contrasting bucolic naïvety with dramatic tension.

Smetana entrusted much of the pageantry and authentic Bohemian spirit of Prodaná nevěsta to the chorus. Under the direction of conductor Garrett Saake, UNCG Opera Theatre’s choristers sang both their set pieces and the villagers’ lines in crowd scenes with irrepressible exuberance and musicality. Despite being outnumbered by the ladies, the gentlemen of the chorus provided a sturdy foundation in ensembles. Impeccably trained by Saake, all of the young singers immersed themselves in the story, persuasively portraying the villagers’ joy, distress, and curiosity. The considerable demands of Smetana’s writing for the chorus were blithesomely met, each voice credibly embodying an individual within the community.

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) tenor COLLIN MCCREA as Principál, tenor ZACHARY TAYLOR as Vašek, and soprano MICHAEL ADAMS as Esmeralda in UNCG Opera Theatre's 2022 production of Bedřich Smetana's PRODANÁ NEVĚSTA [Photograph © by UNCG Opera Theatre]Bearing with rejection: (from left to right) tenor Collin McCrea as Principál, tenor Zachary Taylor as Vašek, and soprano Michael Adams as Esmeralda in UNCG Opera Theatre’s 2022 production of Bedřich Smetana’s Prodaná nevěsta
[Photograph © by UNCG Opera Theatre]

Some of the evening’s finest singing was heard in Act Three, when, accompanying a traveling circus, soprano Michael Adams’s ebullient Esmeralda arrived in the village square. Adams’s voice was as radiant as her smile, her tones beautiful and effortlessly projected throughout the range. She was joined in the brief duet ‘Milostné zvířátko’ by the Principál, the ringmaster of the circus, sung by tenor Collin McCrea. Not wholly comfortable with his music’s tessitura, McCrea nonetheless delivered the part with brio. Baritone Kyle Witton depicted the third of the circus performers, sensibly identified in this production as a daredevil instead of Smetana’s and Sabina’s potentially offensive Indian, with physical and vocal athleticism.

As Micha, the father of the brothers who unwittingly become rivals for Mařenka’s hand in marriage, and his domineering second wife Háta, baritone Douglas Grimm and mezzo-soprano Peyton Wheeler sang and acted capably. Wheeler’s Háta was shrewish but not truly malevolent, her actions and strongly-voiced blandishments motivated by concern for her son Vašek—until his behavior prompted embarrassment, at any rate. Grimm’s handsome voice lent Micha’s utterances welcome immediacy. In his performance, the father’s blessing of both of his sons and their chosen partners was unexpectedly moving.

Mezzo-soprano Danielle Lee Dorsett and bass Rafael Alejando Garcia enlivened the performance in their every appearance on stage as Mařenka’s doting but crafty parents, Ludmila and Krušina. Both singers surrendered themselves to their rôles, imparting the shifting emotions of their subsequent scenes with Kecal and Mařenka.with subtlety and sincerity. Dorsett’s appealing vocalism alternated forceful tones at the top of the stave with soft-grained navigations of Ludmila’s lines in ensembles. His cane virtually a participant in the drama in its own right, Garcia’s Krušina was undeniably opportunistic but endearingly paternal, his words declaimed with an aura of a long-toiling father’s weariness.

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) bass RAFAEL ALEJANDRO GARCIA as Krušina, soprano CLAIRE GRIFFIN as Mařenka, bass-baritone REGINALD POWELL as Kecal, and mezzo-soprano DANIELLE LEE DORSETT as Ludmila in UNCG Opera Theatre's 2022 production of Bedřich Smetana's PRODANÁ NEVĚSTA [Photograph © by UNCG Opera Theatre]Family matter: (from left to right) bass Rafael Alejando Garcia as Krušuna, soprano Claire Griffin as Mařenka, bass-baritone Reginald Powell as Kecal, and mezzo-soprano Danielle Lee Dorsett as Ludmila in UNCG Opera Theatre’s 2022 production of Bedřich Smetana’s Prodaná nevěsta
[Photograph © by UNCG Opera Theatre]

In tenor Zachary Taylor’s portrayal, Micha’s stuttering younger son Vašek was uncommonly sympathetic, the timid youth’s fears of rejection and alienation made all the more affecting by the focused, firm tones by which they were communicated. Taylor voiced Vašek’s Act Two aria ‘Má ma-ma Matička’ with boyish innocence, the stutter neatly articulated without being over-exaggerated. Encountering Mařenka without recognizing her as his contracted betrothed, this Vašek conversed with her sweetly in their animated duet, her warnings about his future bride’s inconstancy unnerving and exhilarating him in equal measures. The dulcet aria ‘To-to mi v hlavě le-leži’ in Act Three received from Taylor a reading of imagination and emotional directness. For this Vašek, meeting the exotic Esmeralda was like a thunderbolt: even when disguised as the circus bear, Taylor conveyed the lad’s infatuation uproariously. Taylor’s fantastic singing propelled Vašek to the center of the drama. Mařenka and Jeník are destined to be together, but this Vašek inspired the hope that he will enjoy a true love of his own.

His uniquely Bohemian musical identity notwithstanding, the marriage broker Kecal is a relation of operatic personages ranging from comic figures in the operas of Monteverdi and Cavalli to the meddlesome Goro in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Performing Kecal’s music in English can bring him disconcertingly near to seeming like an escapee from the Savoy operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan, but bass-baritone Reginald Powell accentuated the echoes of Mozart that reverberate in Kecal’s music. In the trio with Ludmila and Krušina in Act One, Powell voiced ‘Jak vám pravím, pane kmotře’ commandingly, deftly disclosing the character’s smug self-satisfaction. Both ‘Mladík slušný’ and Kecal’s lines in the quartet were dispatched with sure intonation and fleet patter.

Kecal’s vocal line frequently plunges below the stave as his stratagems begin to unravel in Act Two. Powell’s voice was markedly more steady in the upper octave than in the music’s lower reaches, but he courageously confronted every descent into the depths. In his traversal of ‘Nuže, milý chasníku, znám jednu dívku’ in the duet with Jeník, the kinship between Smetana’s scene and the duets for Nemorino and Dulcamara in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore was especially apparent. Kecal’s music in the bustling ensembles of Act Three teems with vocal obstacles, each of which Powell approached intrepidly. His singing in the final act’s wonderful quartet, sextet, and trio, numbers in which Smetana rivaled Verdi’s ability to simultaneously characterize multiple people by interweaving their vocal lines, elucidated Kecal’s growing awareness of having been outwitted by Jeník. Each of Powell’s Greensboro performances demonstrates heightened vocal confidence. His Kecal was emboldened by new musical and theatrical maturity.

IN REVIEW: tenor WILLIAM EDWARDS as Jeník (left) and soprano CLAIRE GRIFFIN as Mařenka in UNCG Opera Theatre's 2022 production of Bedřich Smetana's PRODANÁ NEVĚSTA [Photogtaph © by UNCG Opera Theatre]Young and in love: tenor William Edwards as Jeník (left) and soprano Claire Griffin as Mařenka (right) in UNCG Opera Theatre’s 2022 production of Bedřich Smetana’s Prodaná nevěsta
[Photograph © by UNCG Opera Theatre]

Recently transitioned from baritone to tenor, William Edwards conquered Jeník’s difficult tessitura with galvanizing élan. The Romantic ardor of the young singer’s portrayal was manifested in his first phrases in the duet with Mařenka in Act One, his placement of the upper register gaining assurance as the performance progressed. Rarely for a tenor of his age, Edwards possesses an exquisite mezza voce, which he used to mesmerizingly express the depth of Jeník’s love for Mařenka. His voicing of the aria ‘Jak možna věřit’ in Act Two boiled with passion enunciated with gossamer tones. In the large ensembles of Acts Two and Three, Edwards ensured that Jeník’s words were audible without pushing the voice.

The scene in Act Three in which Jeník attempts to explain to Mařenka that his betrayal of her is subterfuge aimed at undermining Kecal’s scheming to bind her to Vašek was the apex of Edwards’s performance, the character’s love and determination arrestingly coloring the voice. Declaring his triumph over the plan to unite his beloved with his half-brother by revealing his own true identity, Edwards’s Jeník not only blissfully reunited with Mařenka but also initiated a tender reconciliation with his estranged father. Occasional stress as he ascended through the passaggio divulged Edwards’s ongoing adaptation of his technique to tenor repertoire, but the panache with which he sang Jeník’s strenuous music intimated that his voice’s technical foundation is admirably resilient.

The rôle of Mařenka was created in Prodaná nevěsta’s 1866 première by soprano Eleonore Ehrenbergů, a versatile singer whose three-decade career was inaugurated with portrayals of bel canto heroines and eventually encompassed performances of slightly heavier parts, including Jitka in Smetana’s nationalistic epic Dalibor. Ehrenbergů retired from the stage before the advent of recording technology, but Smetana’s music for Mařenka and Jitka suggests that, in range and flexibility, her voice may have been much like that of UNCG Opera Theatre’s Mařenka, soprano Claire Griffin. The poise with which Griffin sang Mařenka’s Act One aria, ‘Kdybych se co takového,’ established a high standard from she did not deviate. Her top A♭s in the aria and B♭s in the duet with Jeník were fully in the voice and integrated into the line, and her singing in the quartet shimmered with youthful fervor.

The capriciousness of Mařenka’s deception of Vašek in their scene in Act Two was playful rather than injurious, Griffin singing ‘Známť já jednu dívčinu’ with unmistakable purpose but no ill intent towards her bewildered suitor. Like her colleagues, she devoted welcome attention to voicing Mařenka’s lines in ensembles, not least those in which she learns of Jeník’s seeming perfidy, intelligibly. Her vocalism in the Act Three sextet affectingly limned the character’s disbelief, and the doubt and pain that permeated her suavely-phrased account of the aria ‘Ten lásky sen’ were genuinely touching. Equally effective was the anger that exploded in the duet with Jeník, the voice slapping him countless times before her hand completed the task. Prodaná nevěsta has the sort of lieto fine that modern audiences find ridiculous, but Griffin’s performance avoided contrivance, the allure of her singing silencing any qualms about Mařenka’s happily-ever-after reunion with Jeník.

Though the opera is now rightly hailed as the cornerstone upon which Antonín Dvořák and Leoš Janáček later built the Cxech operatic tradition, performances of Prodaná nevěsta are rare beyond the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Could the world’s opera houses not barter tired stagings of Carmen and La bohème for a good Prodaná nevěsta? As UNCG Opera Theatre’s production affirmed, Mařenka can beguile as memorably as Micaëla and Mimì, and a polka is as diverting as a seguidilla or a waltz.