Audiences generally catch a glimpse of Knoxville Opera’s executive director Brian Salesky in one of two places: at the keyboard for one of the company’s promotional or educational productions or in the pit as conductor of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra for the principal productions each season. Nevertheless, the reputation of the opera company, and the joy and satisfaction of its audience, rests on one critical task of Salesky’s that does not involve a keyboard or a baton but rather a pencil—finding and casting singers who can thrill and electrify audiences under the limitations of a mid-sized opera company’s budget. Often this means finding exciting younger singers or giving role debut opportunities to more established ones—opportunities that would otherwise be slow in coming. In both cases, Salesky has succeeded with uncanny regularity, and he certainly succeeded in his casting of last weekend’s marvelous Rossini Festival production of Verdi’s Il Trovatore (“The Troubadour”), a tale of revenge and vengeance set in the Spanish civil war of 1412.
Salesky chose the four main roles, with their clear demands of range and stamina, from established singers performing them for the first time—with two of those making their Knoxville Opera debut. New to KO was Jonathan Burton, whose role of Manrico, the title’s troubadour, was a perfect vehicle for his warmly appealing and exceedingly attractive spinto tenor voice. Burton’s exceptional lyrical quality throughout a range of dynamics was matched by equal measures of turmoil and tension as well, evidenced by Act III’s “Di quella pira,” in which Manrico frantically urges the rescue of his gypsy mother from Count di Luna’s army.
Also making a KO debut was mezzo-soprano Dana Beth Miller in the role of Azucena, the gypsy woman haunted by vengeance, given and received. Miller, who has recently been appearing regularly with German opera companies, was a stunning win for Salesky and KO. Her gorgeously versatile voice was capable of plumbing the depths of darkness and despair as well as caressing the heights of lyrical tenderness, all with expressiveness and power. That ability to contrast darkness with tenderness also contributes to Miller’s sensational dramatic range. Her Act II aria “Stride la vampa,” in which she reveals the death of her mother at the stake and the origins of her vengeance, was a masterpiece of narrative singing.
Returning to KO after performing the title role in last season’s Norma was Rochelle Bard, a coloratura soprano who has been feasting on top bel canto roles of late. That glorious flexibility and edge served her well as Leonora, a lady in waiting for the Princess of Aragon and love interest of Manrico. Bard brings a genuineness and confidence to the roles she sings, and, in the case of Leonora, an intelligent and complex portrayal of substance. This seemingly natural dramatic ability combined with her captivating coloratura maintained her position as an equal partner in the foursome.
Also returning to KO was baritone Nelson Martinez, in the role of Count di Luna. While Martinez courageously attempted the performance despite having ongoing allergy episodes, his rich and powerful instrument was reduced to an unfortunate shadow of what Knoxville audiences had previously admired in Rigoletto and Lucia di Lammermoor.
Bass Patrick Blackwell, also in a KO debut, turned in a richly impressive Act I narrative, “Di due figli vivea,” as Count di Luna’s captain, Ferrando. Knoxville singers Kevin R. Doherty and Sarah Fitch, as Ruiz and Ines, respectively, made solid work of the opera’s secondary roles.
In her fourth project with KO, director Keturah Stickann again wove psychological themes into the staging, themes that reference the backstory of the opera otherwise told only through exposition. Specters of Azucena’s mother and child briefly haunt several scenes as a reminder of that story, completed at the finale by a stunning image of an immolation as the existing scenery flies away. Stickann also gave Il Trovatore some truly gorgeous stage pictures through the painting and organization of crowd tableaus and character movement, such as Act II’s “Anvil Chorus,” all the while making a positive attribute of the drop and wing sets.
Knoxville Opera has announced their 2015-16 season: Boito’s Mefistofele in October, Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel in February, and Puccini’s Tosca in April.
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