After a Fidelio with several ups but a few downs, Opera Carolina soars again back to their habitual heights with an extremely successful Roméo et Juliette that matched some of the company's best works. This new production entirely made in Gaston County, North Carolina, is very demonstrative of the growing quality and importance of our state's best opera company: it's been announced that in April 2017 Opera Carolina will do a co-production of La Fanciulla del West with New York City Opera which will be first shown in Charlotte, then in New York City in September, and next will travel to Italy in November to be part of the Puccini Festival in the composer's birth town of Lucca, with shows also in Pisa and Livorno, all conducted by our own James Meena. Costumes, sets, and lighting will all be created in Charlotte. The collaboration with New York City Opera will be already fruitful in the company's next show, a double bill with Pagliacci and Aleko which will be seen in Charlotte this April 2016 (Opera Lively as usual will cover this event), directed by NYCO's general director Michael Capasso.

Backstage at the post-opera reception, I told Maestro Meena that I have just returned from New York City where I saw a lackluster revival of the Zeffirelli production of Turandot at the Met, an opera I had seen recently at Opera Carolina, and it was my pleasure to inform him that not only I liked the stage direction better in Charlotte (more focused, with stronger display of character-to-character interactions) but the local performance was also better sung and better conducted than the one at the Met. Someone reading this statement might assume I'm just being nice to Opera Carolina: not the case. You can consult my review of the Met'sTurandot, and in that piece I had already mentioned "I frankly liked better the one in Charlotte" or words to this effect.

No, these favorable reviews don't stem from being a homer for our regional company. Yes, I do like Opera Carolina and maestro Meena but I'm not allowing this appreciation to cloud my judgment. The company *is* actually this good. The sheer fact that they are collaborating with NYCO and sending productions to Italy shows that it has achieved world-class quality, and yes, at times Opera Carolina does have shows that are better than some of the Met shows. Sure, of course the Met continues to be America's #1 company, and while that Met's Turandot was pale, I also saw the next day a most extraordinary Les Pêcheurs de Perles there – but it is interesting to notice that when Opera Carolina did Les Pêcheurs, it was a close second, with incredible visual beauty, phenomenal projections (such beautiful tropical beach imagery), and excellent singing. The recent and visually striking Madama Butterfly at Opera Carolina? Better than the Met's.

This Roméo et Juliette like I said was another one of the company's exquisitely accomplished shows. Almost everything worked very well. Let's analyze it item by item.

The physical production was very effective: simple, yet very tasteful and beautiful. It consisted of three arcs in the center, and two on each side. The lateral arcs had screens behind them, and projections were shown there, changing the sets according to the scenes: moonlit skies, the streets of Verona, Juliet's tomb, etc. Not only these sets were visually nice, but also they allowed very fast scene changes (something that has been increasingly irritating at the Met, with longer and longer scene changes). A+

Projections and lighting were *very* good, more than usual, and almost as good as those for the gorgeous Pearl Fishers I was talking about. The deep red in the street fight scene, the bluish tones in the balcony scene, and so forth, were very atmospheric. A++

Costumes were period-appropriate and very luxurious. A+ as well.

Stage direction, acting, and blocking were all superior. Mercutio and Frère Laurent even managed some comic touches to ease up the tension. The sword fights were convincing and well choreographed. The large chorus and supers moved well. The stage space was well utilized. Acting by all principals and important roles was accomplished. This was a well-rehearsed show. A+

Conducting was lively, correctly paced, and with good dynamic variation. This is no surprise. The instrumentalists played well. The Charlotte Symphony, unlike some pick-up orchestras in regional opera companies, is a stable ensemble of very good quality, and I firmly believe that maestro Meena is a gem. I just hope he doesn't get poached by other companies, and remains in Charlotte! A++

The chorus was a bit mixed. It didn't start very well in their first participation right after the overture. It improved significantly and had some sublime moments but continued to show a hiccup here and there. B+.

Singing was in general of very high quality, with only a couple of exceptions.

Jonathan Boyd was excellent throughout almost the entire show except for showing a bit of vocal fatigue at the very end. This minor issue (most likely explained by the fact that this was the last show in a very cold and dry week) did not detract from his overall performance, which had moments of phenomenal delicacy with wonderful phrasing and lyricism. His "Ah, lève-toi soleil" was a thing of beauty. His score is A+, losing one + from the maximum score due to the less good finale. Interesting enough, I liked his voice a lot more live on stage than on videoclips, which probably weren't well captured.

The biggest surprise of the night was cover Sarah Joy Miller who filled in for a sick Marie-Eve Munger. I was dismayed when Maestro Meena announced the international star soprano's illness, since after interviewing Marie-Eve, admiring her intelligent answers, and watching her YouTube video clips, I was very much looking forward to listening to her on stage, therefore I was very disappointed. Well, soon enough the disappointment turned into awe: the young lady Ms. Miller stole the show! This was her very first Juliette on the professional stage, and she was a pleasure to see and hear. I overheard other patrons saying the same: Ms. Miller is youthful, energetic, charming, pretty, and consequently was a very convincing Juliette (the character is supposed to be fifteen years old). Not only she had the physique du rôle and the acting chops moving graciously on stage, but she also sang very well, with a great "Je veux vivre." Her voice was powerful with excellent projection, agile in her coloratura, and with very good pitch control. She gets the maximum A++ and we need to keep an eye on this lady. Apparently when the production travels she will sing the role in Grand Rapids (April 29 and 30) and Baltimore (May 13 and 15) – don't miss her, readers! She was Anna Nicole Smith at New York City Opera, and her current season has her singing at St Bart's Music Festival, at the Bolshoi Theater opera gala, and in concert with the Slovak Sinfonietta.

Another excellent singer was Ashraf Sewailam, with a beautiful and secure bass instrument that performed well in all his lines. A+

Kevin Langan was just slightly less good than Mr. Sewailam but was also very impressive. A. I'd give the same A score to our good Brian Arreola who did a very well-acted and sung Tybalt.

Susan Nicely and Efrain Solis were correct. A- for both.

To round up the important roles, unfortunately there was one exception to the long list of A scores above: Kim Sogioka must have been indisposed because her Stephano was clearly the weakest link of the evening, with a sub-par "Que fais-tu, blanche tourterelle" that was slow and with unstable pitch. She was unable to do the proper leaps throughout the range of this interesting aria, which made it almost unrecognizable. B-

The other comprimario roles are too small to be graded but they didn't disappoint.

In summary, this performance had overall very high musical values with only a few issues: excellent conducting and orchestral playing, two formidable singers in the title roles, and of the other 10 singing roles only one had issues – and this, in a week when the weather was very hard on singers' voices – there was one casualty in Ms. Munger who got sick but her cover was simply excellent; I'm assuming that Ms. Sogioka was probably brewing a virus of her own. So I'd say that singing was an A+, all things considered. The average would go up, with A++ for the orchestra and the conductor, but this gets a big bogged down by the B+ for the chorus so it evens out the musical average back to A+. Given that the physical production also got an A+ average, that is also the global score; highly recommended.

The next posts will have several production pictures, courtesy of Opera Carolina and used with authorization. They are all credited to Jon Silla.

I'm very proud of our excellent regional opera company, and I look forward to Pagliacci and Aleko. Charlotte definitely doesn't only have a world-class American Football team (the Carolina Panthers who will be playing in the Super Bowl next Sunday): it also has a world-class opera company!