When the University of Tennessee Opera Theatre left its long-time performance venue at Downtown's Bijou Theatre last season and returned its productions to a campus theatre, I was more than a bit skeptical. The Bijou space had offered student performers the taste of a real-world proscenium theatre and real-world demands--and the location was easily accessible for all amidst the bustle and variety of the revitalized downtown. UT's Carousel Theatre, on the other hand, while a marvelous theatre-in-the-round space, offers numerous size, logistical, acoustic, and staging hurdles, not to mention the perceived difficulties of non-university audiences accessing the campus and finding parking.
However, I have to report that my skepticism has faded; UT Opera Theatre has really made it work--for the most part. The campus location has apparently encouraged student attendance, the smaller effective size has eliminated the need for large and expensive sets, and the field has been leveled for student voices against the orchestral ensemble.
Of course, the minimalist nature of the Carousel Theatre space tends to push physical productions toward varying degrees of abstraction or alternative-reality staging. In the case of UT Opera's latest, Puccini's La Bohème, stage director James Marvel has divided the circular space in half, with a semi-circle devoted to audience seating and the remainder as the performance and orchestra space.
Contemporizing opera appears to be a Marvel trademark; in this case he has changed the opera's milieu to "a post-apocalyptic city formerly known as Paris." The set was a simple platform backed by a jumble of retro-looking video monitors in various sizes and orientations, with conductor Kevin Class and the orchestra scrimmed and positioned behind them. Singers were costumed and coiffed in thrift-store eclecticism that was heavily weighted toward punk.
In UT Opera Theatre's La Bohème, the three obvious elements--the singers and orchestra, the visible production, and the contemporized premise--were all valid and impressive...individually. Unfortunately, the sum of them was probably less than the parts.
The split cast of singers over the four performances, which in La Bohème is mostly male, was as impressive a group--both vocally and dramatically--as I have yet seen or heard from this opera company. Although individual vocal chemistries varied, the Mimi/Rodolfo love pairings of Linda Brimer and Boris Van Druff, and Jennie Sohl and Marshall Rollings, were both excellent. Of particular note were the five singers who took the supporting male roles of Marcello, Schaunard, and Colline: Scott Beasley, Aaron Dunn, Ryan Olson, Peter Johnson, and Ian Richardson. Kevin Doherty was at his usual comic best in the dual roles of the humiliated landlord, Benoit, and the cuckolded sugar-daddy of Musetta, Alcindoro. I managed to catch the performances of two of the three Musettas--Sydney Gabbard and Natalee McReynolds. Each one seized her scenes with vocal strength and projected a different comically energetic, occasionally erotic, view of the character.
I rather enjoyed the retro idea and visual appeal of the video monitor set, but since the video content itself was barely discernable, it served mostly as a changing color background that supported dramatic moods. The set, lighting, and blocking all seemed to have a subliminal focus to the right side of the audience semi-circle, so that the visual and dramatic impact was less effective for those seated audience left. Premise-wise, when placed in the context of an other-worldly "Paris," the contemporized result seemed somewhat arbitrary and forced, if not baffling, in its relation to the opera's plot.
However, I return to the idea that the move back to campus has been a positive one for UT Opera. The intimacy of the Carousel Theatre space is perfect for student voices--and the intimacy works well for audiences, too. After all, who could argue with four, excellent sold-out performances?