LOGAN — While "My Fair Lady" is the highly promoted capstone of the Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre's 20th season, three other major productions are being staged in Logan.
When you open the program and the synopsis of a production ends with the phrase “eternal damnation,” you know it will not likely be light and airy.
Then the prelude to “Faust,” a grand opera by Frenchman Charles Gounod, begins, and it, too, could not be described as hopeful. Some measures of lightness, however, are dropped in before the curtain rises, thus beginning this war between good and evil that is “Faust,” the opening production of the Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre season.
“Faust” is a full-bodied interpretation of a German legend where a successful scholar and doctor, dissatisfied with his life near its end, makes a deal with the devil to become young again.
In response to a plea that God can no longer help him, the satanic Mephistopheles appears and completes the bargain with Faust, using the gorgeous, young Marguerite as bait.
The critical role of Faust is performed by UFOMT newcomer Marc Schreiner. Schreiner’s tenor is clear and precise, though not powerful. He shows great control in holding long notes and is in perfect character, though often too soft in his projection.
Dropped into the world as a younger man, Faust finds himself in the town square with a chorus of soldiers, villagers and the fair Marguerite. This first ensemble scene is a visual delight, with costumes and a set that blend together perfectly. We also begin to see expert lighting design in the production, such as when the evil Mephistopheles dominates the scene, it is bathed in tints of red.
The ensemble numbers felt a bit muted at the beginning of this early scene, but Satan’s irreverent and rousing ode to the golden calf is a strong transition for the chorus, which soon fills the theater with song. Mephistopheles is performed with flair and strength by Kristopher Irmiter, whose strong bass/baritone is easy to follow and appreciate.
Marguerite’s brother Valentin (Kyle Pfortmiller), about to leave for war, challenges Mephistopheles and sings of his love for his sister, whom he hates to leave behind. Pfortmiller shows spirit and passion in his singing not yet seen in the production, and his heartfelt farewell to his sister is an early highlight.
Marguerite (Jessica Medoff) soon is wooed and won by Faust, with the devil helping with the details. Medoff has a solid, easy-to-appreciate soprano, often overwhelming the more-muted Schriener. While nearly perfect in tone and quality — with a rolling, comfortable, nearly languid feel — the couple’s back-and-forth songs of love and duets could have used more fire and passion, though, to go with their precision.
Impregnated and abandoned by Faust, the final two acts focus on Marguerite’s heartfelt pain and repentance. Act IV’s setting of a cold, gray church is striking in its simplicity and mood. Lighting continues to be perfectly utilized.
Valentin’s return and response to his sister’s situation is the production’s highlight. Pfortmiller shows deep passion and his powerful voice hits hearts. His finale left the audience wanting more, perhaps longing for a quick rewrite of the classic to allow more stage time for Valentin and Pfortmiller.
But, alas, the dangers of making deals with the devil are borne out and a highly-memorable final moment of redemption and damnation closes Faust’s life and his tale.
"Kiss Me Kate"
Finding the opposite end of a mood swing, the hellfire and damnation of “Faust” gives way to the 1930 jitterbug dancing and gaiety of “Kiss Me Kate,” the second offering of the Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre company.
“Kate” is a a classic play within a play, as a traveling troupe of actors are presenting “Taming of the Shrew” while the principal characters are living their own version of a husband-and-wife battle, with personal disputes often spilling from backstage onto the main stage.
The UFOMT presentation of “Kiss Me Kate” highlights the dancers in the company to a high degree. Many — make that most — of the vocals have extended interludes of spirited dancing by a very capable chorus of singer/dancers. The dancers undergo numerous — too many to count, really — costume changes and are outstanding throughout.
Kyle Pfortmiller highlights the production as Fred Graham, who’s the producer and director of the traveling “Shrew” and also plays the lead Petruchio when onstage with his crew. Cole Porter’s songs in “Kate” are perfect for Pfortmiller throughout. His presentation of “I’ve Come to Wive it Wealthily in Padua” is a strong, memorable number and shows how well his voice is matched to the material. His solo “Were Thine That Special Face” was also an audience favorite.
Battling Graham/Petruchio as his ex-wife and onstage shrew is Lilli Vanessi/Katherine, played by Vanessa Ballam. Ballam’s pleasant and natural soprano is sometimes challenged by the lower end of Porter’s numbers, though she nails “I Hate Men” midway through Act I and her voice works very well throughout with Pfortmiller.
As it turns out, the traveling troupe has money troubles and there’s a supposed gambling debt, so gangsters show up to collect and and are soon made part of the play, Shakespeare notwithstanding. Lee Daily and Daniel Quintana are spot-on and a great comic device. These gangsters in Bard garb have to be seen to be fully appreciated. The pair’s “Brush Up on Shakespeare” somehow manages to be both irritating and delightful.
The durable Ken Nakatani, in his seventh Utah Festival Opera season with many likable performances, makes the best of his solo “Too Darn Hot” and leads the ensemble through a well-choreographed, almost-athletic dance accompaniment.
Ben Hougton is solid as Bill/Lucentio, showing he deserves even bigger roles in future UFOMT seasons.
Program notes for “Kiss Me Kate” — as does Shakespeare — suggest “all’s well that ends well.” And so it does for the second major production of the season.
The first act of “Tosca,” rather than just setting the plot or introducing characters, decides to sweep the audience off its feet.
Sweep, indeed. Top to bottom, the first 40 minutes of “Tosca” comprises the strongest act so far in this summer’s season.
It begins with a rich, layered set that provides a wonderful 3-D-esque quality to the background. Carla Thelen Hanson is an outstanding choice as Floria Tosca, a famous singer in the court. She interacts with painter Mario Cavaradossi (Johnathan Burton) as they tease and sing of their love. Their facial expressions and movements — particularly those of Hanson, playing the jealous diva — are wonderful accompaniments to their strong voices.
Burton’s tenor dynamics throughout the production are particularly noteworthy. He sings to be felt. Burton and Hanson could both give lessons on singing with passion and heart and not just to hit the right notes. Hanson’s Act II lamentation of love to Mario, as he is taken away for possible execution, was heart-piercing and reinforced how nearly flawless this third UFOMT production was.
Add to these two stars baritone Jeffrey Snider, performing as Baron Scarpia. Scarpia, the chief of police, is a conniving, manipulating anti-hero who delights in his power, and Snider powerfully sings it that way. The chorus/ensemble, though only used once in Act I, was also rich and strong.
Giacomo Puccinni’s score is a major presence in the second act, particularly when action onstage is often limited to just two characters with limited speaking. Conductor Karen Keltner makes certain the score is a driving underpinning and mood-deepening aspect of the production.
And, luckily for the packed opening afternoon house, it’s not all over when the fat sheriff dies, because each scene of this “Tosca,” up until the final curtain falls, is infused with memorable must-see emotion.
Jay Wamsley lives in Smithfield and covers events in and around Cache Valley. He can be reached at [email protected]