After the University of Tennessee Opera Theatre staged their last three productions in UT's Carousel Theatre, one might have assumed that the performance intimacy, the conveniences of campus, and the substantially lower costs had made the choice a logical—perhaps even permanent—one. Not so, apparently. The opera company makes a return to Gay Street and the Bijou Theatre this weekend for a four-performance run of Gioachino Rossini's tunefully appealing and immensely popular comedy The Barber of Seville.
Despite the higher production costs, the lure of the traditional theater environment that the Bijou offers is a strong one. "The decision to return to the Bijou is entirely for the sake of the student experience with a real proscenium theater," says UT Opera Theatre director James Marvel. "The decision to do our shows in the Carousel is entirely out of financial necessity."
While those issues of financial necessity are certainly not abstract ones for opera companies, Marvel admits a particular connection with this Barber. "Commerce and the exchange of money is a major preoccupation in this opera," he explains. "Figaro mentions the money he makes constantly throughout Act I, scene 1, and I feature this concept in my staging."
Not necessarily surprising in The Barber of Seville, Marvel has made hair a visual device for the production and carried it to what may be comical extremes. "One of the features in this production will be the wigs that are designed by Jason and Susan Herrera. There will be 12 mannequin heads with wigs floating above the stage, and a variety of outrageous wigs will be featured prominently."
In usual UTOT fashion, casting is split over the four performances. The role of Count Almaviva will be sung by tenors Todd Barnhill and Marshall Rollings, the role of Rosina by mezzo-sopranos Lauren Lyles and Dallas Norton, and the role of Dr. Bartolo by Kevin Doherty and Aaron Dunn. Figaro will be sung by Mattia D'Affuso and Ryan Olson.
The UT Opera Orchestra will be conducted by Kevin Class.
Without doubt, the Bijou Theatre is one of Knoxville's true acoustic gems—and the Knoxville Choral Society proved last Saturday that the 105-year old venue sparkles for large-scale choral music as well as for opera, orchestral music, and all the other genres of performance that tread upon that stage. The KCS offered up a concert of two major Baroque choral works, J.S. Bach's Magnificat and the ubiquitous, but always appreciated Part I (Christmas portion) of Handel's Messiah. With the 130-voice chorus and 22-member chamber orchestra, the Bijou's stage was probably as full as it has ever been.
In these performances, the KCS, under conductor/artistic director Eric Thorson, did what it has historically done so well: large ensemble works, exquisitely prepared and performed with crisp diction. Clearly, the joy, if not passion, for choral singing is the prime motivator for this diverse membership organization, and a laudable one. However, by drawing soloists from the ranks of the society for these major works instead of engaging solo specialists, the KCS has perhaps forgotten that the joy for the audience is equally important.
The Magnificat, like many of the other large Bach choral works, is tackled in Knoxville only occasionally, making this performance all the more significant for lovers of the Baroque. As Thorson stated in his program notes, Bach requires a "lightness of sound" which he approached through careful dynamics and crisp entrances and cutoffs. But, the tempos overall felt far too slow for the work, even plodding at times, lessening any sense of lightness and contrapuntal complexity. Notable highlights in the Bach were the tenor aria "Deposuit potentes" with Nathan Martin, the bass aria "Quia fecit" with David Glover, and the two final choruses "Sicut locutus est" and the "Gloria patri."
The Messiah performance was a success of choral diction, with every word reaching cleanly to every seat in the Bijou—notably "And he shall purify," "For unto us a child is born," and "Glory to God in the highest." Again, tenor Nathan Martin was standout in "Comfort ye my people," as was soprano Jennifer Bruce in "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion" and David Glover in "But who may abide."
Although Part I of Messiah ends with the chorus "His yoke is easy," it's practically essential to conclude, as the KCS did for an upbeat ending, with the familiar "Hallelujah Chorus" from Part II. And, it was an excuse to hear the gorgeous trumpet work by Chase Hawkins, the KSO's new principal trumpet.