Amid the giggly, guileless, and light-hearted charm of Gaetano Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore, staged by the University of Tennessee Opera Theatre last weekend, it would almost be possible to forget for an instant that the university's school of music and its opera program are in the throes of a serious transitional period. At the same moment in which the school had made the painful choice to invest in the future by sacrificing its building so a larger and modern facility could be built on the site, the opera program lost its director of 14 years, Carroll Freeman, who headed south to a position at Georgia State University.
Stepping in on short notice to the circumstantially unenviable role of interim program director is Michael McConnell, who shoulders the responsibility of not just training singers in theatrical performance and staging the operas, but who also carries the burden of creating and maintaining an artistic reputation that can retain current singers and attract new ones to the program. However, when the house lights fade and the curtain rises, what matters to the audience is what happens next, not necessarily what has gone on before.
What did happen next was a L'Elisir d'Amore of acceptable success, but one that certainly did not dazzle in any particular way. The opera's requirements are basic, but specific: a sweet-voiced tenor to play the love-struck, naïve country bumpkin, Nemorino; a soprano, Adina, capable of coloratura moments and the ability to portray a capricious nature as well as a romantic change of heart; and two solid baritones with strong comic instincts—Belcore, a sergeant garrisoned in the village, and Dulcamara, a traveling peddler of bogus potions.
In the Friday and Sunday performances to which I confine my remarks, the romantic leads of Nemorino and Adina were sung by tenor Erik Lickiss and soprano Anna Eschbach. Both singers had pleasant enough voices for their roles, each with attractive sweet spots in their ranges that were impressive, even delightful. Lickiss did an admirable job with Nemorino's famous Act II aria "Una furtiva lagrima." Comedy is not easy, though, and comic motivations and transitions are often more difficult to master than tragic ones for young acting singers.
However, comedy does seems to come naturally for baritone Kevin Richard Doherty, who sang the role of Dulcamara, the quack peddler. Not only was Doherty's voice impressive, his stage presence commanded each scene he was in; his comic timing was impeccable, his body language superb. This is a singer with a bright future.
Jesse Stock, a face and solid voice known well by Knoxville opera audiences, was a marvelously haughty and harrumphing Belcore. Robyn VanLeigh's brief, but inventive, mute portrayal of Dulcamara's assistant was proof that there are no small roles.
McConnell was wise to keep the main action as far downstage as possible, where young voices could compete successfully with the pit orchestra in the uncanny acoustics of the Bijou Theatre. However, with the exception of Dulcamara's dynamic entrance to the village square on a hilarious horse-like vehicle, the staging was far too static, and was confined to rather uninteresting two-dimensional movements and arrangements of principals and chorus. In the case of Adina, McConnell allowed Eschbach to sing into the wings on too many occasions instead of giving her the direction necessary to sell her important emotional transition to the audience.
Kevin Class conducted the UT Opera Orchestra tightly, with precise cues for the singers and sharp timing for the orchestra that kept the action moving crisply. Although Donizetti's orchestration is not overly complex, Class maintained a consistently solid performance throughout. The signature bassoon solo that introduces "Una furtiva lagrima," played by principal Emily Wuchner, was gorgeous.
Over the years, the UT Opera Theatre has become an important element of Knoxville's classical music scene and a notable training ground for young singers. While the current transitional circumstances are unfortunate for everyone, we can only hope that the support and encouragement of enthusiastic audiences can carry them through these trying times.