What could the subjects of chemistry and operatic performance possibly have in common? Of course, we are not talking about the chemistry of molecular weights and the periodic table, but rather the chemistry of performance—the reaction that occurs when professional desire, individual talent, and competing personalities combine in ways that determine success on the stage.
The University of Tennessee Opera Theatre knows something about that chemistry, for it is one reason that they return to proscenium productions in the Bijou Theatre despite the expense. The venue represents a theatrical proving ground for operatic talent that is supportive, yet demanding in the real world of acoustics, movement, and physical scale. Last weekend in the Bijou, UTOT explored the beauty of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), experimented with some fine vocal combinations, added some dazzling visuals, and ended up with a vibrant, energetic production.
Kudos go to stage director James Marvel for his experienced understanding that Mozart—and student singers—can benefit in the 21st Century from high energy movement, visual variety, and bold stylistic design. To that end, Marvel enlisted projection designer Brittany Merenda, lighting designer John Horner, and scenic designer Eric Allgeier to accomplish that visual variety with hanging fabrics that took light and projected images, providing brash stylistic and symbolic suggestions of time, place, and emotion. Emily Ryan Colbert added a quirky, idiosyncratic flavor with costumes in a time-nebulous black, white, and red motif in geometric asymmetry.
A double cast of singers handled the four performances, an arrangement that allows for gentle competition and comparison. In this case, however, both casts were uniformly—and remarkably— strong overall, with differences coming generally from personality and, yes, chemistry.
The two Figaros were bass-baritones Griffen Tracy and Peter Johnson. It should be noted that Johnson—a former UTOT singer but now working in the professional world—was taking the role due to a dropout for health reasons. That said, both had the necessary vocal power, despite intriguing individualities of range and tone. On the dramatic/comedic side, Johnson’s experience translated into the ability to develop an enticing stage chemistry with his Susanna, sung by Elizabeth Stovall.
Stovall and the evening-cast Susanna, Kayla Beard, were both highlights of their respective performances, offering gorgeous vocal power and clarity, and the right comedic combination of flirtatious domination.
Marvel steered both Count Almavivas—Brad Summers and James Berkley Wilson— toward similar comic meanness, yet each managed to offer amusing differences of character. Unfortunately, Summers lacked the vocal power to project over the orchestra. Wilson’s range and vocal strength seemed to match the role perfectly.
Elena Stabile and Emily Simmons took the role of the Countess Rosina and offered a marvelous example of how two different dramatic angles can both achieve lovely results. Both Stabile and Simmons brought a beautiful clarity and poignancy to their Act III aria, “Dove sono i bei momenti.”
One cannot help but enjoy Mozart and Da Ponte’s most notable pants role, that of Cherubino. Leslie Ostransky and Brynn Johnson brought the necessary comic flightiness helped along by a spiky red wig and striped socks. While both singers obviously have light lyric voices, they both offered up a delightful “Non so piu cosa son, cosa faccio” and Act II’s “Voi, che sapete.”
Frankly, I admit to being surprised by the depth of vocal ability and strength that extended beyond the leads to the secondary characters in this production. Tyler Padgett and Ian Bolden each gave their Dr. Bartolo a wonderful combination of harumph and humiliation. And, my surprise turned to astonishment when I was intrigued in both performances by the role of Marcellina, sung with real power and dramatic subtlety by Madeline Hamrick and Tori Franklin. Similarly, the small role of Barbarina, which carries its own aria, “L’ho perduta, me meschina,” was beautifully done by the two singers I heard, Kathryn Shepas and Anna Young.
Of course, the role of Basilio is like clay in the hands of a master comedy director like Marvel. But, admittedly, he did have willing and able casting in Darius Thomas and Joshua Allen. Their performances were lusciously over-the-top, but in a way that was an integral part of the scheme.
One of the joys of attending multiple UT Opera performances is the opportunity to witness talented musicians on the rise. This also includes the UT Opera Orchestra under conductor Kevin Class as well. Over the performances I attended, the orchestra grew audibly in confidence and ensemble playing in that marvelous, but unforgiving, acoustic environment that is the Bijou.
The UT Opera Theatre returns to the Bijou in April for a production of Allen Shearer’s Middlemarch in Spring.
Photos courtesy of James Marvel and the UT Opera Theatre