Romeo and Juliet, Knoxville Opera, Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, February 2020
What better production on a Valentine’s Day weekend than with Knoxville Opera for a work based on the Shakespeare play that features instant love, passionate love, and forbidden love? While the ending might not inspire the most hope for a romantic intertwining, the themes of the holiday are all present and accounted for. Dreams, passions, and love at all costs—very human needs and drives are found throughout.
The plot to the opera, which debuted in 1867, has a long lineage of variants. The basic story was first told in Italy, written by Arthur Brooke in 1562 as The Tragical History of Romeus and Julietas an epic poem. It was soon re-told as prose in Italian. By 1597, Shakespeare had transformed the work into a play with more developed plot lines and characters.
By the time of the debut of the five-act opera, composed by Charles-Francois Gounod, an established French composer known previously for his production of Faust, the basic story was familiar to many, as it had been available in written form for over three hundred years. Libretto for the French opera was provided by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, and the production was immediately successful with audiences and critics alike.
In the subsequent 150 years, the opera, which debuted in Paris but was soon mounted in both London and New York, has been continuously produced by opera companies the world over. The other variants based on the original plot have been successful as well, including dramatic reproductions and re-imaginings of the original play and recordings of the opera and other music based on the story. A number of movies, some modernized and others more faithful to the original, are also in existence.
The play, and subsequently the opera, also contain some of the best-known lines in the English language, including:
Good night, good night! parting is such sweet sorrow, that I shall say good night till it be morrow . . .
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet . . .
O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo? Deny thy father and refuse thy name.
Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love and I’ll no longer be a Capulet.
It is an interesting linguistic path to the current production. The story, originally written in Italian and set in Italy, was made universal in English (albeit a version of English that might give current English speakers pause) by Shakespeare’s play. The opera was originally produced in French, as it will be in Knoxville (with English subtitles), though still set in Italy.
The production, with Maestro Brian Salesky conducting and Laura Alley providing stage direction, features Chinese-born Yulan Piao, making her Knoxville Opera debut as Juliet. Iowa-born Mackenzie Whitney, who is also making his Knoxville Opera debut, fills the role of Romeo. The roles are critical for plot, and because the opera focuses more heavily than others on duets. Joining the two are other primary roles including Brian James Myer as Mercutio, Andrew Wentzel as Friar Lawrence, Wayd Odle as Tybalt, and Aubrey Odle as Gertrude. Myer and Aubrey Odle are also making their Knoxville Opera debuts.
This production is known for its beautiful melodies, and Paio and Whitney, who do most of the vocal work, deliver them beautifully. In addition to the melodies and costuming, the action sequences will appeal across age groups. The production does contain simulated violence, including suicide, and the single night shared by the young lovers, which is beautifully and sensuously portrayed.
The two-and-a-half-hour production will be presented Friday evening (2/14) at 7:30 and Sunday afternoon (2/16) at 2:30. At each performance, Maestro Salesky will give an opera preview forty-five minutes before the performance, and students are invited to have their photographs made with performers after each production. Tickets range from $25 to $115 and are available here.