Very Briefly Noted: UT Opera Theatre’s ‘The Medium’ and ‘Suor Angelica’

As intermission arrived between the two UT Opera Theatre offerings last weekend–Menotti’s The Medium and Puccini’s Suor Angelica–it became obvious to me that writing a full blown review of them would be impossible for a number of reasons.

Foremost, these were the first productions for the new UTOT Artistic Director James Marvel who was teaming with music director/conductor Kevin Class and stepping into an opera program that is now rebuilding for the future. The opera selection alone seemed to speak volumes concerning the balance of available female and male singers–there is only one male vocal role in The Medium (the role of Toby is mute). And, of course, Suor Angelica takes place in a location noted for the absence of males– a convent. Despite that fact, all the split-casting roles in both operas were well-covered and I was truly impressed by the depth of soprano and contralto talent.

Marvel stated in his notes his desire to give singers the staging tools they’ll need to succeed in today’s opera world. While everyone knows the days of “park and bark” are over, not every singer will become a great actor or actress. Yet, they all need to be challenged by a director that takes character and role development seriously. And that is certainly the emphasis Marvel seems to be placing on his students.

I was also overjoyed to see that Marvel embraced the idea of projections as a scenic device–opera has long been a fertile ground for conceptual abstraction. To that end, guest projection designer Katy Tucker gave the productions beautifully kinetic video images as a significant reinforcing background. It was stated to me that Marvel and Tucker’s concept for The Medium was to be a film noir flavor. Of course, there is an inherent danger in attaching that term to things that aren’t film and aren’t noir, but still… to that end the production opened with images of the infamous Academy countdown leader followed by cast credits (under the orchestral prelude) complete with “old film” scratches and dust–an interesting cinematic idea. While it seemed more F.W. Murnau than film noir, I was happy to go along for the ride.

Unfortunately, two complications intervened. The intriguing moving images often fought with the singers for attention, the degree of which seemed to vary depending on one’s seat location in the Bijou Theatre. And in The Medium, the warm low-angle and under-angle lighting, obviously intended to indicate evil/danger/mystery, was in irritating conflict with the stylistic black-and-white coloration of the video images and the dramatic impact of the expressionist concept.

UT Opera Theatre’s spring offering (coinciding with Knoxville Opera’s Rossini Festival) will be Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. 

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