Let’s be honest—playing it safe is often accepted, but rarely applauded. But risky ideas, if they succeed, can reward opera companies by bolstering current audiences and attracting new ones. Just such a risky idea was championed by Knoxville Opera last Saturday as its audience found itself on an adventure in the form of Puccini’s Tosca. This production, conjured up by the company’s executive director, Brian Salesky, was performed not in a theater but in three separate locations in downtown Knoxville, one for each act, spread out over the afternoon and evening.
Although it would conceivably be possible to perform the opera in the actual locations in Rome, Knoxville isn’t Rome, and it’s 2016, not 1800, the year when Tosca is set. Nevertheless, the Gothic Revival architecture of Church Street United Methodist Church on Henley Street was stunningly successful as the setting for Act I, the Roman church Sant’Andrea della Valle. Church Street’s voluminous interior of stone and dark wood created the perfect ambiance, while the space’s natural light and reverberative acoustics made entrances down the aisles possible—and dramatically compelling. The orchestra, off in a side alcove area, projected warmly and crisply into the nave.
Downtown Knoxville has nothing remotely resembling the settings for Acts II and III—the Palazzo Farnese and the fortress Castel Sant’Angelo. Salesky and KO were forced to create an Act II stage of bare minimum theatricality and a seating area of uncomfortable folding chairs inside the older trade show space at the Knoxville Convention and Exhibition Center near World’s Fair Park. Act III took place a short walk to the south, on the stage of the covered—but open-sided—Tennessee Amphitheater, with equally minimal sets and lighting. But there was nothing minimal about the rainstorm that raged throughout Act III.
The slightly dampened audience, yanked from their theater seats, deprived of translated supertitles, and forced to absorb the opera from an alternative perspective, apparently adored this Tosca. Reasons for their enthusiasm aren’t difficult to identify: a cast as vocally and dramatically exciting as any yet heard by Knoxville Opera audiences, and a performance by the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra that resonated with solid artistry and consummate professionalism, despite the unusual conditions.
Leading the splendid cast was the perfectly matched pair of tenor Jonathan Burton as Mario Cavaradossi and soprano Kerri Marcinko in the title role. Burton, who impressed as Manrico in last season’s Il Trovatore, was the ideal Cavaradossi: confident yet charmingly vulnerable. He demonstrated an expansive range that flows naturally through warmth, clarity, and detail—a voice capable of sending chills up the listener’s spine. Marcinko was an equally impressive Floria Tosca, with a voice that was both powerful and beautifully delicate. Her rendition of the Act II aria “Vissi d’arte”—possibly the most dramatically perfect one I have ever experienced live—was a showcase of emotional strength and vocal control.
Baritone Scott Bearden has become a welcome face and voice to Knoxville Opera audiences. As Baron Scarpia, he sang boldly, with dramatic power, and acted with appropriate totalitarian disdain. The evil of his character hung like a spider’s web over Act II until he received his just demise at the hands of Tosca and a purloined letter opener.
Salesky did not skimp on casting secondary roles. Three of them went to baritone Geoffrey Hoos, who gave the Sacristan in Act I an impressive, rich voice and an engaging comic presence. Ian McEuen was appropriately nasty as the police agent Spoletta. The on-the-run escapee Angelotti was sung with engaging intensity by KO veteran bass Peter Johnson. The shepherd boy in Act III was sung by Kacie Kenton, and Burt Rosevear appeared as a sergeant.
The obvious question now is how does Knoxville Opera top this experience? Should it try? Although there are lessons to be learned from this production, the company loves opera and understands how to build and satisfy its audience. And it also seems to understand that there is virtue in doing what it does best.
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