Knoxville Opera Puritani: Nope they are not all hillbillies
Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending Knoxville Opera‘s presentation of Bellini’s I Puritani. Yes, my dear friend Ronizetti and I drove 6 hours just so we could see the opera. The main attraction for us was to hear in the flesh American Coloratura Rachelle Gilmore who seems to be gathering laurel after laurel for her performances.
I am happy to say that Ms. Gilmore met and exceeded every expectation I had. Her Elvira was scrupulously (and scrumptiously) sung, beautifully acted; a complete success that was met with a standing ovation from a screaming audience. Ms. Gilmore’s voice is even through all the registers and she used them to great advantage up to a high F that rang to the audience like a laser.
Her legato was melting; and her ability in singing passagework had an almost insolent quality. It seems to me someone forgot to let Ms Gilmore know this role is extremely difficult to sing, as she sailed through the role like it has been composed just for her. Not only was her singing marvelous, her Italian pronunciation veered on perfection; her entire performance veered on perfection! Her mad scene was met with a riot of bravos and with good reason. There are not enough good things I could say about her performance except: If she is announced in your town or close by, run to get tickets. If you, like me, are very picky about your singers, this is one you want to hear and soon.
Ms. Gilmore was partnered by Armenian tenor Yeghishe Manucharyan. Mr. Manucharyan has an ease with the high register that is enviable. His entrance aria, A te o cara was capped with a C# sung forte and then he performed a melting diminuendo that was both surprising and amazing. He also capped his Act III aria, Credea Misera with the written high F that has brought many a tenor to their knees. Mr. Manucharyan’s high F was again, sung in full voice and was exiting as all hell.
Alas, I wish I could say the rest of the performance was just as exiting as those two moments but the reality is that Mr. Manucharyan was a two trick pony: C# and F. The rest of the role was sung with what I am sure was meant to be a throwback style to resemble what some suppose was the way Rubbini sang it. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. The Tennessee theater is a very intimate venue for sure; when you can not be heard in such an intimate venue, you are in trouble and Mr. Manucharyan was very hard to hear for entire stretches.
The role of Riccardo Forth was sung by Cuban baritone Nelson Martinez. His entrance aria had the desired effect to present the villain of the opera and set Mr. Martinez as a force to be recon with, not only physically, but vocally as well. Mr. Martinez was the other revelation of the afternoon. His voice is gorgeous and well projected. His acting could use some help, but with singing like this, complaining about someone acting seems almost risible. He and Daniel Mobbs made a highlight out of their act 2 duet Suoni la tromba.
Speaking of Daniel Mobbs, the Kentucky native sang with distinction and authority as Giorgio. The one inconsistency I found in his performance was that he was made up to look like an old man but his acting retained the vigor of a much younger man. Why was he made up like an old man? There is nothing that says that Giorgio has to be in his 60’s or older. Vocally, Mr. Mobbs was fabulous in every way.
The cast was rounded up by mezzo Lorraine Di Dimone as Henrietta, who turned a passionate performance of this short role. I was fully expecting her to come back at the end dressed in full regal attire to give Arturo a pardon herself and I was disappointed she was not allowed the opportunity to do so by either Bellini or the director. Her singing was as enjoyable as the rest. There was a point during the Son vergin Vezzosa that she got into an acoustical hotspot on the stage and I kept getting the feeling she was singing right by my side.
The chorus of the Knoxville opera, after a somewhat shaky start, did a wonderful job in supporting the principals. Their singing was wonderful, precise, and passionate. What infuriated me, and I have to admit it, is how poorly they were used by stage director James Marvel. He chose to move them in lines or blocks, which rendered their positions resemble squares most of the time. This gave them an almost Greek chorus quality that seemed off with their singing.
One thing that I know from experience is that the people from the chorus want to be used and challenged to create the atmosphere the principals need. The fact that James Marvel did not is almost an insult to the artists he had at his disposition. He could have created tableaus that were incredibly dramatic and could have used the chorus as individuals. What a pity that he chose to have the chorus stand in two straight lines for most of the time and to move them in exactly the same formations for the duration of the performance.
I am sorry to say this, but if there was a disappointing aspect to this afternoon was Jame’s Marvel staging. It was simplistic in some areas and it lacked dramatic impetus. Most of the time the principals looked like they were left to their own devices or just told to move about with very little meaning behind the movements. I am not sure if it was that he didn’t have enough time to work with the artists or if he just does not believe that opera can be a theatrical experience. It is indeed a pity because he had a group of artists ready to rise to the challenge as they demonstrated in several moments.
The production,designed by Ercole Sormani was a model of frugality. Mr. Sormani created marvels with painted backdrops, 5 chairs, 2 desks and a projector. Those who insist that the stage has to be cluttered with ornamental nothings should take a look at the production pictures for this opera. The costumes, rented from Utah Opera and designed by Susan M. Allred were traditional Puritan costumes except for some very un-Puritan colors and shades; all minor details since it is all make believe. Who cares whether Puritans wore green or red, really?
This leaves the orchestra and conductor Brian Salesky. In the merits of their performance Ronizetti and I were divided. I thought the orchestra played fairly well; Ron, on the other hand thought the orchestra out of tune for long stretches. I also found some decibel issues with the orchestra. The endings for Act I scenes 1 & 2 were particularly prominent because the singers were completely covered and all you could hear was a band-like sound coming from the pit. Ron thought this was forgivable given how small the theater is. I blame the conductor for not paying closer attention to the dynamics the orchestra played. Just because it is marked FF in the score it does not mean the orchestra has to rattle the chandelier in the lobby. I have always held the conviction that the dynamics are relative to the singer’s voice and the performing space.
This is not to say that Maestro Salesky thought he was conducting Salome. for most of the score, his support of the singers was very good. He allowed them and the music time to breathe and develop; which made this already discussed tendency to let the orchestra fly towards the end of scenes or acts all the more regrettable.
Overall, this was a marvelous experience enhanced by our stay in this beautiful city. As it turned out, Knoxville Opera scheduled this Puritanis to coincide with their Rossini Festival; a Saturday street fair with local and area artisans, great food and showcase performances by several performing organizations. Ronizetti and I had a chance to walk through for a couple of hours, since we arrived to Knoxville on Saturday. We enjoyed ourselves so thoroughly that we are already making plans to make it there for next year’s Rossini festival. As a matter of fact, we had so much fun that on the drive back we were lamenting Knoxville is not two or two and a half hours closer, as we would be regulars in the city. It was a lovely stay.
Although Knoxville Opera is done for the season, there are still some activities done to promote the operatic arts in the area. If you happen to be from Knoxville, or from a city close by, I encourage you to contact them and see how you can get involved, or even attend some of their events. We met with 2 lovely volunteers who were telling us about First Fridays, a monthly event where singers are taken to different and unexpected venues to promote the opera. Again, what a pity they are not closer, as I would love to participate. They were telling us how the event took place in a Chinese restaurant not too long ago.
Next year, Knoxville opera is presenting Traviata, Romeo et Juliette and Othello (This one timed to coicide with the Rossini Festival). I have a feeling that I will want to go see more than one performance.
Nope, Knoxville is not for hillbillies anymore.