Knoxville Opera and UT Opera Theatre Live Up to Rossini Fest Expectations

It is an inescapable fact that opera-goers are not likely to confuse Vincenzo Bellini's I Puritani for one of the repertoire's great dramatic operas. Improbable plot points and a shaky view of English history, however, cannot diminish its status as a masterpiece of bel canto vocal music writing. It has historically been a magnificent vehicle for those singers who possess the ability to deliver what the score demands. Because of these demands, however, casting the opera's four leads is a daunting task, especially for regional opera companies. Knoxville Opera seemed to have found just the right casting combination for its production of I Puritani last weekend—its 2011 Rossini Festival offering—a combination that yielded an intensely satisfying and thrilling opera evening.

Following her sensational performance as Lucia in last season's Lucia di Lammermoor, it seemed unlikely that Rachele Gilmore, who was rapidly gaining a significant international reputation as a notable young soprano, would be easily available for Knoxville Opera in the future. However, the opportunity to develop the major bel canto role of Elvira for her repertoire must have been quite the lure. And for Knoxville Opera, having a soprano of Gilmore's caliber made the production feasible.

The draw for sopranos in the character of Elvira is, of course, the Act II mad scene ("Qui la voce… Vien, diletto, è in ciel la luna"). As Elvira sank from happiness into despair, Gilmore showed not only the seemingly effortless and focused, thrill-inducing coloratura high end that she is capable of, but also a rich, flexible depth of mid-range that described her psychological journey. As a woman at the mercy of romantic and political pressure, Gilmore's dramatic arc seemed to be an extension of her vocal soul.

Equally impressive was bass Daniel Mobbs, singing an outstanding performance as Giorgio, Elvira's uncle. Mobbs' voice has a strong, rich warmth at the low end, yet is marvelously focused and clean. This supported his elegant dramatic portrayal of the solemn Puritan that was, nonetheless, sympathetic and complex.

In the high-altitude role of the royalist Arturo, Elvira's lover and husband-to-be, was tenor Yeghishe Manucharyan. A singer with the high range the role requires, Manucharyan also possessed a unique tonal quality that is as distinctive as it is agile and lyrical. Dramatically, his Arturo was bold and gentle, although I was often confused about which was which.

Completing the foursome was Nelson Martinez as Riccardo, the Puritan who has lost Elvira to Arturo. Martinez's baritone was delightful to the ear and supportive of the role; his dramatic portrayal, though, seemed a bit stiff.

Bowing to the difficult demands of Bellini's score and a relatively short rehearsal period, stage director James Marvel wisely kept the action simple for both the leads and the chorus. In an almost Puritan restraint, the wing-and-drop set was sparsely adequate in establishing the appropriate atmosphere without adding staging complexities to the opera's considerable musical challenges. Music director and conductor Brian Salesky also made a few cuts to the score for the sake of expedience. With exception of a gorgeous horn interlude that follows Elvira's mad scene, nothing was really missed.

***

Down the street at the Bijou Theatre, the University of Tennessee Opera Theatre added its contribution to the Rossini Festival with impressive performances of Benjamin Britten's 1947 comic opera Albert Herring. As a chamber opera, the work is constructed around a 13-member ensemble cast and a 13-member orchestra. The work has become a favorite of university opera programs because of its delightful premise, likable but extremely challenging score, and the variety of roles for a diverse range of voices.

Albert Herring is based on a Maupassant short story, but reset to an English village in Loxford, where the annual selection of a virtuous local girl as May Queen has hit a snag because no such young lady can be found. The village virtue committee's only recourse is to choose a May King, in the person of the meek and innocent Albert Herring, who runs a greengrocer's shop for his domineering mother. Needless to say, young Albert decides an innocent life is not for him.

The mostly double cast split over the four performances was surprisingly even in vocal and acting ability, although the performances and production improved impressively over the course of the run. The cast's English vocal diction seemed flawless. Singing the role of Albert Herring were Erik Lickiss and Cody Boling, each having a distinctive take. Lickiss nailed the meek and innocent character, while Boling had a gorgeous vocal portrayal. In the role of Albert's chum, Sid, Ryland Pope and Kevin Richard Doherty each were vocally and comically strong without being overpowering. Sid was kept in check by girlfriend Nancy, sung by two fine actress-singers, Maria Natale and Amanda Tittle.

The village's self-appointed matron, Lady Billows, was sung by Denisha Ballew and Corinne Stevens. Ballew's withering looks and bluster cowed the villagers, while Stevens let her strong voice do the job. In Mr. Gedge, the vicar, Jesse Stock brought vocal strength and boldness, although I loved Seth Maples' more refined appreciation for Miss Wordsworth (delightfully sung by Annie Schwartz and Anna Eschbach). In single casting, Susan Thieme sang Florence Pike, Thomas Isaac Collins sang the role of the mayor, and Martha Prewitt sang Mrs. Herring. UT faculty bass Andrew Wentzel brought his rich experience, golden bass, and anchoring theatrical presence to the role of the bumbling Superintendent Budd.

Stage director Michael McConnell gave the singers fresh and natural movement and a nice pacing that did not end just by revealing realistic characters, but went further into subtle, and not so subtle, comedic body language and parody.

In the pit, music director and conductor Kevin Class shepherded the orchestra and singers through the admittedly difficult score, illustrating over the course of the performances impressive growth in achieving Britten's atmospheric texture and lyrical tonality