THE BOOK OF GOLD, de Jong Concert Hall, Brigham Young University, Provo; additional performances through Saturday (801-4224322).

PROVO — A considerable number of works have been written to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Joseph Smith. One of the most ambitious of these is the opera "The Book of Gold."

Written by librettist Glen Nelson and Brigham Young University composer-in-residence Murray Boren, the opera received its world premiere Friday at BYU.

The work chronicles a crucial two-year period in Smith's life, from the time he received the golden plates to the printing of the Book of Mormon. And while it depicts Smith's gradual transformation from simple farmer to religious visionary, "The Book of Gold" is much more than an LDS opera.

The LDS faithful can certainly find inspiration in Smith's actions, dedication and resolve, but the work is more complex and deeper. It revolves on several different levels. And because of that, it possesses universal appeal.

The story in "The Book of Gold" is not only that of the foundation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It also depicts the individual's struggle against society. Even though he faces tremendous opposition in his community and doubters among his friends, Smith nevertheless forges ahead, strengthened by what he believes is right.

He doesn't compromise his convictions, even when local newspapers publish excerpts from the Book of Mormon and editorials criticize and mock him. But Nelson never pontificates. The audience is never preached to, because questions of faith are left open.

Central to the story is the love between Smith and his wife, Emma. She is his strongest supporter. She sees her husband through some of his darkest moments and gives him the strength to continue. For these scenes between husband and wife, Boren has written some of his most poetic and poignant music.

Boren's score captures the spirit of the libretto wonderfully. Besides the tender love scenes and the evocative music accompanying Smith's visions, Boren depicts early 19th century rural America with a robust earthiness that is at once persuasive and gripping.

Singing the leads at Friday's opening night performance were three stars of the operatic stage — baritone Darrell Babidge as Smith, soprano Jennifer Welch-Babidge as Emma and mezzo-soprano Ariel Bybee as Lucy Mack Smith. The three are compelling.

Babidge in particular is impressive. He brings confidence and passion to his demanding role. Welch-Babidge is no less notable. She exudes tenderness and compassion but behind it all there is a strong-willed woman as well. And as Smith's mother, Bybee brings dignity to her role.

The supporting cast is equally remarkable. Hyrum Weibell as Martin Harris, Alainna Fielding as Lucy Harris and Eric Hanson as Oliver Cowdery sing their roles with feeling and self-assurance.

The opening night cast alternates with an all-student cast. Conductor Kory Katseanes leads the BYU Philharmonic, which played wonderfully Friday night. Katseanes' intelligent and perceptive direction, and his dynamic pacing, added immeasurably to the production's dramatic success.