Strong Voices Shine in Rossini Festival Opera Productions

The excitement and anticipation had been building all day long. Amid the festive celebration of food, drink, and entertainment, the performing troupe arrived and the ebullient townspeople gathered round to get a preview of what might be in store in the evening’s performance.

While hopefully not lost on anyone, this scenario describes both the beginning of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci and the inspired idea of Knoxville Opera Company’s Brian Salesky for a large-scale participatory connection between the opera and the Rossini Festival Italian Street Fair on the packed and sun-drenched Gay Street. Salesky began the evening with a pre-curtain preview of the beginning of Pagliacci on one of the outdoor stages of the festival. Then, with a pause for cast, orchestra, and audience to sweep into their respective places in the Tennessee Theatre, the performance began again.

Vocal performances were mostly solid all around, as was Salesky’s usual crisp direction of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra. Tenor Michael Hayes appeared as Canio, the leader of the performing troupe who is jealous (with good reason) of his beautiful and young wife, Nedda. Hayes’ voice is beautiful and strong, with an enjoyable clarity and range to match. Baritone Scott Bearden sang a fabulous Tonio, the actor whose amorous advances are spurned by Nedda. Of special note was Bearden’s prologue, where he explains that the drama is about real people with real emotions, the essence of verismo drama. Joyce El-Khoury, as Nedda, had a lovely, gentle voice that neither disappointed nor impressed. The same could be said for John-Andrew Fernandez as Nedda’s lover, Silvio. The stage seemed to brighten a bit for the excellent Adam Lloyd, in the comprimario tenor role of Beppe.

While Pagliacci as an opera can survive almost every production indiscretion, the cast and excellent chorus had little help from the stage direction of Stanley M. Garner. El-Khoury, who is still at the beginning of her career, could certainly have used a directorial boost. Garner, too, allowed the stage to be lit too flatly and broadly, which had the unfortunate effect of unconsciously enervating the dramatic intensity. However, in an interesting twist for the curtain call, the wing-and-drop set began to fly out, ultimately revealing the bare backstage, a refreshing allusion to the verismo concept. While saving this idea for the end had a nice shock effect, it would probably have been more effective to have integrated it from the very beginning.

A few blocks down Gay Street at the Bijou, the University of Tennessee Opera Theatre mounted its contribution to the Rossini Festival, a production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

Director Carroll Freeman brought Mozart into the 20th century with a re-imagined premise that placed the opera in the New York streets of 1947, in what was billed as a film-noir production approach. I found the time shift to be completely successful—one had no trouble accepting the contemporary setting. The film-noir look? I’m not so sure.

What is certain is that the UT Opera program possesses an abundance of talented performers. The cast of singers, split over five performances, ran the gamut from undergraduate students to advanced graduate students at the beginning of professional careers. Even the least experienced undergrads have been infused with Freeman’s high-energy staging approach that creates theatrical performers out of raw talent.

In the performances I attended, I must single out John Arnold as a magnificent Giovanni, and Rachel Anne Moore as Donna Anna. These are two singers to look for on opera rosters in the near future. Mieke Rickert, a fine actress as well as singer, gave a wonderful Donna Elvira. Andrew Gilchrist’s Leporello was an interesting counterpoint to his boss, Don Giovanni, with a majestic voice and a fine stage presence. In that role, I also saw David Simoson, who gave quite a bit of comic flair to the role. Jessica Cates brought a flirtatious, bubbling quality to her Zerlina. Evan Broadhead was wonderful as the duped Masetto.

Staging premises that go in unusual directions, as this one did, place additional burdens on the visual artists. For Don Giovanni, most of the responsibility for Freeman’s film-noir look fell on costume and lighting design. The set, from last year’s production of Kurt Weill’s Street Scene, and the gray/black wardrobe scheme, suffered from what seemed to be an oversimplified lighting design that used basic elements of film-noir cinematography (low-key lighting and high contrasts), but did not communicate the mystery or psychology of film noir, nor enough visual variety.

I was impressed with how the UT Opera Orchestra, under the baton of James Fellenbaum, grew over the five performances. This is a testament not only to Fellenbaum’s leadership but also to the professional-bound players who rose to the deceptively difficult challenges of Mozart.

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