The traditional opera cheer is “Bravo!” But, for the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre’s new show, you might want to substitute, “Yee-Haw!”
The opera is Thomas Pasatieri’s Hotel Casablanca, a comic tale of love, guns and mistaken identity deep in the heart of 1940s Texas. It’s a big deal for UK Opera, as this is a co-production with the San Francisco Opera’s Merola Program for young artists. San Francisco premiered it in August. Lexington audiences are the second ones to see it, though they shouldn’t be the last.
Casablanca has just enough opera majesty to satiate grand opera adherents and enough silliness to keep most audiences entertained. As a bonus, it’s in English.
Though Casablanca is pure fluff, you can tell Pasatieri loves his divas, as he gives the lead soprano, Tallulah, two anguished arias, one with her dressed up like Madama Butterfly. Darla Diltz sings those numbers with such conviction, you’d think we were back in the tragic La Traviata, in which Diltz sang Violetta last fall. (She is double cast with Amanda Balltrip, who will sing the role Oct. 13 and 19). But there’s nothing as vocally and emotionally taxing as Verdi here.
The real challenge for the cast is pulling off the comedy, and no one does that better than Eric Brown as Raul, the hot-blooded Latin determined to defend his honor when he thinks his beloved Lucy is cheating. Under the guidance of Richard Kagey, who was also the stage director of the San Francisco version, the whole cast understands that a key to comedy is doing the ridiculous seriously.
The show clocks in at under two hours, and only drags in a couple of spots. One is at the end as the characters try to sort themselves out for the grand finale, and the other is in Tom's song about how much he loves Tallulah. The sentiments are nice, but the melody meanders.
One real impressive element of Casablanca, which may owe a lot to Pasatieri's background composing art songs, is he manages to create a convincing romance between Tallulah and Tom though the couple doesn't actually share the stage until the opera's final moments. Their numbers about one another are infused with enough emotion, you don't realize they haven't actually looked into one another's eyes until they do. The same is true of Raul and Lucy.
Overall, it’s a fun romp that UK got to perform last night with the composer watching from a box to the right of the stage.
They performed on a gorgeous desert yellow set, which serves as a ranch house in Act I and the hotel in Act II, designed by Kagey and built at UK by technical director David Steinmetz. That set traveled to San Francisco for the premier and will go to Oklahoma for the next production, in November.
And now UK Opera has the prestige of actually sharing a production with a professional company, and they've shown themselves to be more than up to the challenge.