A buzz of excitement filled the lobby at the Lexington Opera House before the curtain went up on Thursday's opening performance of UK Opera Theatre's Les Misérables. TV news crews were interviewing prominent attendees, and Miss Kentucky, wearing her sash and crown, was posing for photos.
The excitement transformed to hushed attention once strains of Claude-Michel Schönberg's score began wafting from conductor John Nardolillo's orchestra pit.
Then the audience met Gregory Turay's Jean Valjean, whose soaring tenor and emotionally staggering performance as the epic tale's protagonist was one of the many strengths in this majestic, unforgettable production.
(This production of Les Mis is double-cast, meaning the lead roles will be played by different actors during different shows. This review addresses the "red" cast.)
Touring companies of Les Misérables have for years avoided performing at the Opera House, considering it too small. Artistically, that's too bad. One of the most appealing aspects of this Les Mis is its unique combination of intimacy and grandeur.
In the 1862 novel on which the musical is based, author Victor Hugo dwells on themes that are the big, enduring questions of the human condition: Is it better to live our lives according to society's rules or a greater spiritual law? Can empathetic acts of mercy and loving a chosen family redeem the baser nature of humanity? Does whatever redemption we experience come from God or the choices we make?
UK Opera is equipped to tackle these big questions on an appropriately grand scale, offering more rewards than most touring companies could provide anyway, including a legion of some of the best operatic voices in the country.
Showcasing these vocal talents with a full orchestra, robust set design, rich period costuming and Hugo's epic narrative in an intimate venue like the Opera House makes for a uniquely accessible, personal and moving connection to the work.
Of course, creative success requires more than the right venue and a litany of artistic and financial resources (this production's budget was reportedly a half-million dollars). It requires sophisticated execution, the job of director Richard Kagey and director of production Marc Schlackman.
Together, they ensure the show's smooth integration of artistic interpretation and technical wizardry, a hulking task considering the cast and crew approaches 200 in number.
With remarkable consistency, they succeed.
Under Kagey's direction, performers deliver more than vocal excellence. In most instances, the actors, most of them university students, display a palpable grasp of their characters' plights and conflicts, emoting pain, betrayal, hope, courage and greed.
As Valjean, Turay, a star graduate of UK's opera program, takes the audience on a harrowing and redemptive journey. He goes from an embittered convict, who experiences a life-altering moment of grace after spending 19 years in prison for stealing bread, to becoming a small-town mayor and paternal guardian of Cosette, daughter of the tragedy-stricken Fantine. In numbers like Who Am I? and an exquisite Bring Him Home, Turay combines powerful vocal mastery with heartrending emotional complexities.
Thomas Gunther's Javert is a formidable foil, the policeman whose life mission is to hunt down and punish the elusive Valjean. ("He is way better than Russell Crowe," I overheard someone say during intermission, referencing last year's film version of Les Mis.) Gunther's performance of Javert's Suicide in Act II, when the inspector's sense of reality has been turned upside down by Valjean's incomprehensible mercy, is one of the show's high points. That's not only in terms of vocal performance and dramatic resolution, but because his fall into the River Seine is dramatically portrayed with a wire harness that allows Gunther to float and disappear into the darkness.
Other highlights of the show include Jessica Bayne's piercing delivery of I Dreamed a Dream, Fantine's sad recounting of how her life descended from a lofty dreamscape into hellish poverty.
Evan Leroy Johnson delivered a spirited and potent performance as Énjolras, impassioned leader of a failed revolt. Although a relatively minor role, Johnson's powerful voice combined with Énjolras' determined demeanor brought gravitas and urgency to the show's secondary plot, the growing civil unrest in early 19th-century France.
Samuel Themer and Maggie Smith deliver boisterously humorous performances as the villainous love-to-hate-them Thénardiers, particularly revving up the audience during the bawdy Master of the House and Beggars at the Feast.
A few hiccups marred an otherwise engrossing night of theater. A set change during the "sewer" scene was plodding, confusing and noisy. On a couple of rare occasions, the orchestra's volume eclipsed actors singing in their higher range; sound quality was otherwise excellent.
Robert Pickering's sweeping set design and Tanya Harper's lush, emotive lighting design provided plush atmosphere for Hugo's tale of personal redemption and the triumph of love in a cruel, corrupt world. Susan Wigglesworth's decadent period costuming completed the historic tableau.
An exquisitely rendered production, UK Opera Theatre's Les Misérables will be fondly remembered for years to come.
What: University of Kentucky Opera Theatre production of the musical, with music by Claude-Michel Schönberg, original French libretto by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, with an English-language libretto by Herbert Kretzmer.
When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 11-13, 16-20; 2 p.m. Oct. 12, 13, 19, 20.
Who: The "red" cast, addressed in this review, performs at 2 p.m. Oct. 12 and 13 and 7:30 p.m. Oct. 16, 18-20. The "black" cast performs at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 11-13 and 17, and 2 p.m. Oct. 19 and 20.
Where: Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short St.
Tickets: $40.50-$76.50. Available at Lexington Center ticket office, (859) 233-3535, Lexingtonoperahouse.com or Ticketmaster, 1-800-745-3000 or Ticketmaster.com.
Learn more: Ukoperatheatre.org