I seriously doubt that Knoxville Opera’s Brian Salesky would ever want to compare himself to Peter Gelb, the general manager of New York’s Metropolitan Opera. However, one can certainly claim that what Salesky seems to be doing for opera in Knoxville on a smaller scale is similar to what Gelb has done for the Met and for opera worldwide—generate an excited interest in operatic performance that attracts new and younger audiences to the musical art form through clever outreach, attractive and marketable casting, and a willingness to depart a bit from tradition.
One need look no further than last weekend’s Knoxville Opera production of Charles Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette to see what has changed in Knoxville over the last five years or so. In contradiction to the tired stereotype of opera-goers, the audience for the virtually sold-out Friday evening performance was a vibrant and vocal mix of fashion-conscious twentysomethings and culture-hungry newbies intertwined with the loyal base of experienced enthusiasts. Collectively, this was a discerning bunch that demonstrably enjoyed what they were seeing and hearing.
What they saw and heard was a deeply satisfying production that delivered much, much more than one could have predicted. The staging by director Candace Evans was nothing if not poetry, not just in the strategically suggestive minimalist set and well-designed stage movement, but also in the literal poetry of spoken lines from Shakespeare read by three actors (Bill Williams, Cory O’Brien-Pniewski, and Maggie Hargett) during the scene changes. The simple addition of the Shakespeare in English, which could have been a distraction in the wrong hands, helped smooth over the gaping story holes in Gounod’s libretto and was a successful atmospheric complement to the musical story and a poetic reminder of whence it came.
Making his KO debut was Noah Stewart as Romeo. Stewart possesses one of those remarkable voices that falls between tenor and baritone, having the positive qualities of both—a low and middle range of solid warmth and richness, with a higher range capable of surprising power and beauty, if not altitude. Stewart began the evening with a bit of tightness in that upper range. But by the Act II balcony scene, that tightness had softened; and by the Act IV love scene his voice had a focused clarity that was thrilling and impressive.
Also making a KO debut as Juliette was soprano Zulimar López-Hernández. Gounod’s Act I entrance passages for Juliette are, admittedly, a bit dry and empty. But Juliette’s Act I waltz, the famous “Je veux vivre,” gave the soprano a chance to show a voice that, while not overly imposing, was full of gentle, subtle detail defined by lyrical clarity and bolstered by surprising reserves of vocal strength. Her Act IV bedchamber-potion aria was deeply affecting.
Both Stewart and López-Hernández offered satisfying dramatic portrayals—relaxed, natural, and full of chemistry—although both, as visibly mature adults, seemed to be avoiding the fact that the young lovers are teenagers. Dramatic license goes a long way in this regard.
For the obvious sake of performance expedience, Salesky and Evans did quite a bit of editing and removal, musically and dramatically, on the secondary characters and their action in the Montague and Capulet camps. Unfortunately, this left the background story of the feuding families a bit one-dimensional, with some characters underdefined and some dramatic points unrevealed. Surviving nicely, though, was the excellent baritone Brent Reilly Turner, who turned in a Mercutio that was strikingly full of dramatic depth and focused vocal warmth. Notable, too, was Dixie Roberts in the role of Juliette’s nurse, Gertrude, and bass Andrew Wentzel as the pivotal Friar Laurence.
While I have no idea whether the term “French-style” was bandied about in preparation, Salesky guided the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra through the charming-but-light Gounod score with just enough punctuation to underscore the poignancy—and deliver an evening of satisfying storytelling.