KSO Offers a Prelude to April's Rossini Festival

In one month's time, the streets of downtown Knoxville will be filled with the sights and sounds of opera and all things Gioacchino Rossini, courtesy of Knoxville Opera's Rossini Festival and Italian Street Fair. The theaters along Gay Street will likewise bulge with opera productions, albeit no Rossini ones. The Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, though, made its own substantial pre-festival operatic statement last weekend with its concert at the Bijou Theatre titled "Opera Highlights," the bulk of which was an intelligently constructed grouping of overtures and arias from operas inspired by the Figaro plays of Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais.

While Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro and Rossini's The Barber of Seville have become the most significant and popular derivations of the plays, Maestro Lucas Richman opened the afternoon with another composer's take, and a nice little curiosity, Giovanni Paisiello's Overture to his 1782 opera The Barber of Seville.

When Mozart teamed with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte to create his opera in 1786, based on the second of the Beaumarchais plays, The Marriage of Figaro, the controversial ban on the play had only recently been lifted by Louis XVI and was still in place in Vienna. It is now difficult to imagine the political stress and strain that must have swirled around the plays and the subsequent attempts to adapt them for the opera stage. Richman completed the first half of the concert with music from the politically sanitized Mozart opera—first the well-loved and often-performed overture followed by some notable selections of arias.

Joining KSO as guest soloists for the arias were soprano Katy Williams and baritone Kevin Richard Doherty. Williams, who makes her home in Pittsburgh, has performed with Richman on previous occasions there and performs regularly with Pittsburgh organizations, including the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Doherty is finishing his master's degree in music at the University of Tennessee and is a voice student of Andrew Wentzel. A wonderful actor as well, his Dulcamara in UT Opera Theatre's fall production of L'Elisir D'Amore was a sure indicator of a strong future for him on the opera stage. He will return to the Bijou for next month's UT production of Benjamin Britten's Albert Herring, singing the role of Sid.

This well-cast duo made a delightful pair and was strong, both vocally and dramatically, in the concert staging. Together they offered opening and closing duets—"Cinque…dieci…venti…trenta," in which Figaro is measuring for his wedding bed, and "Crudel! Perché finora," which features Count Almaviva and Susanna. Taking the role of the Countess Almaviva, Williams sang "Porgi, amor…," poignantly lamenting her husband's unfaithfulness. Doherty delivered a brilliant "Non più andrai," Figaro's humorous military-like send-off for the character of Cherubino.

With the exception of Richman's Salutation No. 8 and Arthur Sullivan's tuneful Overture to The Pirates of Penzance, the second half of the program was dedicated to music from Rossini's inspiration from Beaumarchais, The Barber of Seville. Without fail, Doherty thrilled the audience with "Largo al factotum," the opera's introduction of Figaro, the jack-of-all-trades. Similarly, Williams sang the character Rosina's adorable aria, "Una voce poco fa." The afternoon concluded with the infectiously tuneful overture to that opera.

While the lecture hall of the Knoxville Convention Center is not the most musically receptive of Knoxville's venues, I was drawn there for a performance by the Knoxville Choral Society of Mozart's Mass in C ("Coronation Mass"). There were big surprises, though, on other parts of the KCS spring concert—notably performances by winning contestants in their Young Classical Musicians Competition. The winner in the keyboard category, 14-year old pianist Carolyn Ann Craig, gave a stunning performance of Khachaturian's Toccata in E-flat Minor, Op. 24. Craig apparently needs no advice on how to get to Carnegie Hall, as she will be performing at Carnegie's Weill Recital Hall in New York on March 12 as one of the first-place winners in the 2011 American Protégé Talent Competition. Joining Craig in accepting performance awards were baritone Breyon Lattrell Ewing and violinist Elizabeth Weitnauer.

In addition to the Mozart Mass and the competition winners, interspersed through the evening were a number of traditional hymns and spirituals by the chorus under the direction of Eric Thorson. The harmonically intriguing "Secure" by Craig Courtney and the wonderfully balanced "I Got Shoes," a spiritual arranged by Robert Shaw and Alice Parker, were excellent examples of just how agile and youthful a large choral group can be.