REVIEW: “Sounds and Sweet Airs: Shakespeare and Music”

If music be the food of love, play on,

Give me excess of it; that surfeiting,

The appetite may sicken, and so die.

If music truly is the food of love, then I can only imagine the blessings that befell the audience for Sounds and Sweet Airs: Shakespeare and Music at the TVUUC Performing Arts and Lecture Series after last Sunday’s performance.

The evening transpired like a dream. The dream of an evening of music, theatre, and dance inspired in different ways by William Shakespeare, is truly a fantastic idea…at once noble, intriguing, and filled with all sorts of musical and dramatic possibilities. The collection of works assembled by James Carlson covered the gamut of Bard-inspired works—from the music of Mendelssohn, Prokofiev, and Verdi through dramatic snippets from Much Ado About Nothing, The Tempest, Twelfth Night, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream to dance based on Romeo and Juliet. Each performer in the cast of twenty or so singers, instrumentalists, actors, and dancers contributed to the substantial repast.

Perhaps the best known work of Shakespearean-inspired music is Felix Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the vivid musical images of a 17-year old composer who painted into a concert overture his dream-like vision of kings and queens, woodland fairies, elves, and rustics. Organist Daniel Stipe opened the evening with his organ arrangement of the Overture. Bookending the evening was Mendelssohn’s Finale from A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the entire cast;  I unabashedly admit it gave me chills up the spine.

In between, came a range of monologues and scenes, arias and songs, and dance.  All were excellent beyond belief; but favorites of mine were soprano Rebekkah Hilgraves performance of “Una macchia, e qui tutt’ora” from Verdi’s Macbeth and soprano Maria Rist accompanied by Thomas Tallant on theorbo for The Tempest-related “Come Unto These Yellow Sands” by Henry Purcell and “Full Fathom Five” by Robert Johnson.  Violinist Lucie Carlson was heard in excerpts from Erich Korngold’s Much Ado About Nothing Suite and violist Hillary Herndon was heard in excerpts from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet Suite.  Pianists for the evening were Mary Hooks and Patrick Harvey.

Although it helps to know the “thrust stage” arrangement of the TVUUC space, I must say I found it curious that a decision was made to have the actors address their action and scenes toward the musicians’ area as if a proscenium actually existed and the audience members were invisible.

Oddly, though, and quite ironic, was what was missing from the evening…visual and physical theatricality.  Granted, the TVUUC space lacks the capability for even rudimentary theatrical touches; and the lighting that was added proved to be more detrimental illumination than a dramatic help– flattening the perspectives, enervating special moments, and irritating the eyes of those audience members who chose their seats poorly. But this one addition, no more than a few tweaks, would have focused important moments, revealed movement, and smoothed transitions. It could have, indeed, transported the production from the brilliant into the theatrically sublime.  Well…“To sleep, perchance to dream-
ay, there’s the rub.”

The TVUUC Performing Arts and Lecture Series continues in January.  Contact them at Pals c/o TVUUC, 2931 Kingston Pike, Knoxville, TN  37919.

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