By James Sohre, Opera Today
Published: Friday, August 8, 2014
Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre has gifted opera enthusiasts with a thrilling Barber, and I don’t mean . . . of Seville.
At a time when few companies risk devoting resources to lesser-known lyric theatre, this enterprising operation has gambled, and won, with a handsome new production of Samuel Barber's Vanessa that was characterized by first-rate musical and theatrical values.
Conductor Barbara Day Turner wielded a commanding baton that made the (slightly reduced) orchestration pulse with character and vitality. The top-notch instrumentalists, assembled from near and far, played as one and the Maestra elicited many happy revelations from the rich orchestral writing. She unleashed every bit of passion from the rhapsodic moments, and discovered a beautiful balance with the more straightforward (and sometimes witty) conversational exchanges. Moreover, the conductor was a collegial partner with the singers who were coached to a fare-thee-well. Barbara Day Turner may have just achieved the most accomplished and inspired operatic conducting I have experienced in recent memory.
Logan • Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre's 22nd season includes four ambitious, superbly produced mainstage shows, with Schönberg's and Boubil's ultra-popular "Les Misérables" topping the bill. All four productions feature some of the country's finest rising operatic talent, impressive experienced voices, eloquent acting and thoughtful direction.
Have you ever considered what an amazing act of faith it is, as a conductor, to do an upbeat and come down and expect sound to happen? We now introduce a fearless Karen Keltner, resident conductor of the San Diego Opera, who has helped to make the Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre a success now for eighteen seasons.
ANNOUNCING THE WINNERS OF THE 6th ANNUAL INT'L OPERA COMPETITION |
Congratulations to the winners of the 6th annual Michael Ballam Concorso Lirico International Opera Competition:
Peter Scott Drackley – 1st Place Winner
Jon Jurgens – Alternate
Rachel Sparrow – Audience Favorite
Thank you to all of the talented artists who gave their best in the competition, and a special thanks to our audience for your support and participating in the vote!
The 1st Place Winner will be sent expense free to Alessandria, Italy to compete in the finals of the Concorso internazionale di musica - Cappucilli - Patané - Respighi, where they will join contestants from around the globe for the opportunity to sing in front of European agents and operatic producers. They will also present a debut performance in Italy. Should the 1st Place Winner not be able to participate in the finals, the Alternate will go in their place.
SHOUT "YEEOW!" FOR UTAH FESTIVAL OPERA'S OKLAHOMA! |
LOGAN — Oklahoma! was the first musical that the very popular team of Rodgers and Hammerstein created together, and through the years it has been the subject of critical acclaim, awards, and accolades. Because of this, the show is one that is done by many theatre companies, communities, and high schools. The music is well known, well liked, and quite popular. The story is of two couples as they find love and plan a new life in the territory that is about to become the state of Oklahoma.
Utah Festival Opera is in their 22nd season of providing opera and theatre to audiences in Cache Valley, and those willing to travel to Logan to see a show. Oklahoma! is performed in the Ellen Eccles Theatre on Logan's Main Street in Logan, and having spent many years at Utah State University, one of the draws to review this show was to arrive in time to go to one of the many enjoyable local restaurants and shop around in some of the main street shops before curtain. Logan is a town that knows how to welcome it's visitors, so I suggest that if you decide to travel to see this or another production by UFOC, take enough time to stroll down Main Street, get a bite to eat, and head over to Gossners for cheese and milk before you go home.
The best thing about this production was the live orchestra, conducted by Karen Keltner. As the orchestra began to tune, and Keltner came to the helm, I could tell from Keltner's professionalism and orderliness that I was going to enjoy the orchestrations greatly. In each of the large numbers, such as "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning," "Kansas City," and the title number, the impeccable orchestra was easily one of the best I have heard this year in Utah theatre.
The set, designed by Timothy Case, was a beautiful sight to behold. The majority of the setting is based outside of Aunt Eller's farm home, and the workmanship of the wood house, windmill, and trees in the background were intricate and impressive. There were a few scene changes, and each had the same attention to detail as Aunt Eller's home. One of my favorites was an addition of a night sky that, thanks to lighting designer Christopher Wood, gave the scene a very realistic nighttime ambiance. Finally, the costuming designed by Phillip R. Lowe was exquisite. The details on the women's dresses, the hats, and the chaps of the cowboys were appealing to me, and every detail made the entire show visually appealing.
When the opening number of "Oh, What A Beautiful Morning," sung by Curly (played by Wes Mason), began, I was reminded that this is an opera company. Therefore, the voice of the actors were a lot fuller and more operatic than any other production of Oklahoma! I have ever seen. Mason had a superb voice, and the volume of his voice easily carried throughout the whole performance hall. Mason's singing was also strong during many of the duets he sang, particularly "People Will Say We're In Love," with Leah Edwards as Laurey. Edwards, too, has a strong voice, but hers also had a charming quality that evident in all of her songs, most especially in "Many a New Day," where she also showed her strength in acting ability, as well as her voice.
A song that is usually one of my least favorite numbers, "Jud Fry is Dead," was actually exceptionally well performed in this production due to the harmonization of Mason and Kevin Nakatani, playing Jud Fry. The strong, beautiful singing caught me by surprise because the piece is such a sad and almost mean song. Nakatani was excellent in his portrayal of the lonely, confused, and frightening Jud Fry.
Other supporting characters, such as Ado Annie (played by Caitlin Beitel) and Will Parker (played by Bray Wilkins), also added to the positive aspects of the show. The number "All Er Nuthin’" was one of the most amusing of the evening, with the two actors not only using their musical abilities, but also using their skills of physical acting and comedy to great effect.
However, when it comes to acting, Vanessa Schukis as Aunt Eller stole the show. During "The Farmer and the Cowman," she moves and acts so delightfully that she singlehandedly made the song one of the most memorable of the show. Schukis is a strong comedic actress who knows how to play to her audience and cast. She also has a lovely, strong voice and is able to be the stoic character of wisdom and strength that this show needs.
Finally, the chorus members of this show deserve strong praise for their ability to bring together an excellent choral number. This, too, is perhaps indicative of the fact that the cast is part of an opera company. The famous title number, "Oklahoma!", had some of the strongest chorals I have ever heard on the musical theatre stage, and I found myself not minding the second and third reprise. In addition, the choreography (by Maggie L. Harrer, Lauren Champ, and Stefan Espinosa), added to the strength of the show, especially during "The Farmer and Cowman" and, of course, the dream ballet.
As we near county and state fair season, Oklahoma! is an excellent show to enjoy. It's also nice to be reminded of the rich heritage of musical theatre and the vision of Rogers and Hammerstein. Director Maggie L. Harrer has kept very true to the original concept of the show, and I believe audiences in 1943 were treated to a very similar production as the one I saw today.
BATTLEGROUND: CHOREOGRAPHER EXPLAINS THE ART OF STAGE FIGHTING |
Stefan Espinosa of the Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre was talking to patrons about fight choreography on Tuesday when one of the festival artists walked in and announced he had a beef with Espinosa.
Samus Haddad said he had scheduled a time to use the Dansante rehearsal hall, and Espinosa was not supposed to be there. Things got ugly very quickly.
It started with a shove. Then the two men grappled. There were chokeholds, strangling and Espinosa even got a “head slam” on the sound equipment nearby. It looked ugly.
By Jay Wamsley, Deseret News
Published: Saturday, July 19, 2014
It's easy to see which of the four offerings of the Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre season is considered the blockbuster, the one to see. Check out the schedule: "The Student Prince" is set for five showings, and "Vanessa" is scheduled for four. "Oklahoma!" will be staged eight times in the 30-day summer calendar of the UFOMT.
But "Les Miserables," perhaps the most recognizable of the four major productions, is set for 14 performances — and for good reason. Not only is "Les Miserables" a story known to a wide range of potential patrons, it also is far and away the premier presentation of this UFOMT season — and one of the top-drawer productions in the company's 22 years.
Even professional nit-pickers would have an extremely hard time finding fault with this nearly perfect "Les Miserables." It is as close to flawless in both production and performances as could be witnessed. In fact, the UFOMT company is, according to founder Michael Ballam, the first opera company in the United States to be granted permission to perform the famed musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, which is based on the time-honored novel by Victor Hugo. And that opportunity has not been wasted.
Considerable credit goes to director Valerie Rachelle and conductor Karen Keltner for their inspired and almost relentless pacing of the production. This staging of a very involved production moves quickly and actively, and passions are high in both movements and voice by all involved. The powerful opening scene is an attention-getter, and the attention of the audience is riveted to the Ellen Eccles Stage from that point on.
Keltner never lets the score rest, bouncing and urging the orchestra to put passion into their pieces. Scenes meld from one to the next so precisely and quickly that a usually clap-happy Cache Valley audience could not keep up between numbers, opting to hold their applause on opening night to reward extra-big moments, of which there were plenty. Set changes were fascinatingly efficient, and set designs were simple enough to leave much to the imaginations of audience members.
Some memorable performances include Wes Mason as Bishop Myriel, whose rich voice and perfect projection reminded Jean Valjean that his soul had been purchased. Stefan Espinosa and Vanessa Schukis are scene-stealing stars as the Thenardiers, and that couple’s performance — and leading of a busy ensemble — of the familiar "Master of the House" is very memorable. As Inspector Javert, Daniel Cilli becomes master of the low register, and his strong bass and equally strong performance end up making him, ironically, a crowd favorite.
Before the season started, Ballam noted that he had hoped and was announced to be taking on the role of Jean Valjean. However, as the 2014 season approached, he said, "We have been presented with an extraordinary opportunity to have a world-class performer step into the role … that will enthrall us all." That performer ended up being Patrick Miller, winner of a Grammy Award and a performer with the Metropolitan Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Miller was riveting and powerful and moved through the several stages of Valjean's life and dilemmas with a combination of ease and power, proving Ballam correct.
It should be noted that Tyler Olshansky as Eponine is a memorable cog in this cast. Olshansky sings with what appears to be ease, never straining to hit notes but never missing, demonstrating a voice that feels soft around the edges and that patrons could listen to for much longer than what was called for by her character's stage time.
Samuel Barber's American opera "Vanessa"" premiered in 1958 and is not as well-known to audiences as the season's other offerings. While the individual performances opening night were all quite strong, the production as a whole remained unremarkable and presented little to lift and excite the audience.
Vanessa (Beverly O'Regan Thiele) and Erika (Alice-Anne M. Light) do a good job building anticipation in early scenes as Vanessa waits for her lover to return after 20 years away. Light is especially gentle of voice and easy to listen to, never approaching harsh or shrill tones in her solos. Richard Zuch as the Doctor, a family friend, provides a welcome visit to the bass clef and charms the audience with a little dance number early in the production.
Act II provides a bit more passion and pacing for all involved and even provides a duet (there are no ensemble numbers in "Vanessa," and it seems the number of pieces with combined voices can be counted on one or two fingers). Big or memorable numbers are not part of the mix in "Vanessa."
Andrew Bidlack as Anatol is perfectly smarmy as he burns his two-ended candle. Bidlack provided a conniving edge to his character, and his voice was strong and as memorable as "Vanessa" could provide.
All involved with the well-known Rodgers and Hammerstein musical seem to be having fun and present it with ease. As Curly McLain, Wes Mason sings effortlessly and with a comfortable richness. His duet — "People Will Say We're in Love" — with Laurey Williams (Leah Edwards) is an excellent performance by both. Will Parker (played by Bray Wilkins) gets to ham it up a bit and provides the perfect introduction into the first big dance number as the second scene opens.
As traveling peddler Ali Hakim, Stefan Espinosa maintains his reputation as a scene-stealer. Espinosa leads an ensemble of men's voices expertly as the group moans about being hen-pecked husbands unable to muster up a revolution.
As Jud Fry, the dark cloud on the horizon of this little corner of the Oklahoma territory, the durable Kevin Nakatani has the brooding look and uncertain presence down perfectly.
Conductor Karen Keltner gives a light, airy touch to the familiar score all night, bouncy but not overbearing. A perfect example is her lead into a dream and dance sequence with a sextet of characters on stage. The dream sequence, presented as part of Laurey's elixir-induced haze, then goes on for an extended time — perhaps 10 minutes — and is expertly choreographed.
Other highlights included a rousing ensemble number to open the second act ("The Farmer and the Cowman"), and Espinosa again gets an opportunity to play up his several talents, including facial expressions and dancing. The finale is also a rousing ensemble number and was just what everyone in the audience wanted — a real boot-tapper.
"The Student Prince"
On opening night of the well-known operetta "The Student Prince," patrons were likely struck by two obvious things early on: First, there was a masterfully painted, almost 3-D set that was a delightful backdrop; second, it was easy to note that Andrew Bidlack (appearing as the lead, Prince Karl Franz) has the remarkable ability to complement every actor with whom he sings. All of Bidlack's duets and chorus numbers are strong because he leads them and lifts others. And all the ensembles in "The Student Prince," with or without Bidlack, are finely tuned. Costuming is noteworthy, with Kathie (Emma-Grace Dunbar) standing out in her especially highlighted dresses.
Led by conductor Barbara Day Turner, the score has a fluid, waltzlike quality that suits Turner's flowing style perfectly. While the dilemmas presented by "The Student Prince" are not always easy on the heart, the always-present score by Sigmund Romberg is very easy to listen to.
For those attending all the UFOMT productions, "The Student Prince" becomes a bit of a study in contrasts and strong character acting. Nakatani, for example, so depressing in "Oklahoma!," is a comic relief in "The Student Prince," along with sidekick Duchess Vanessa Schukis. Bidlack also here takes on the role of hero after his character showed less-than-admirable qualities in "Vanessa."
As it is supposed to, "The Student Prince" holds audiences to the final moment as all want to see resolutions to the dilemmas the plot presents.
Three of the four offerings of the Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre's 2014 season comprise an enjoyable lesson in the evolution of Broadway shows in the 20th Century.
"The Student Prince," which opened July 11, is a prime example of an operetta, a late 19th century theatrical style that blurred the lines between opera and popular music of that era. While these musical hybrids continued to be popular in America in the early 20th century, they were largely eclipsed by song-and-dance revues with little dramatic content by the 1930s.
The premiere of "Oklahoma!" in 1943 is generally considered to be the birth of the modern American musical. That production, which built on theatrical innovations first seen in Jerome Kern's "Show Boat" in the late 1920s, is renowned as Broadway's first fully successful integration of singing, dancing and acting to achieve a dramatic stage experience. The UFOMT's current production of "Oklahoma!" debuted July 10.
In the midst of a golden age of modern American musical comedy, the so-called rock opera was pioneered by impresario Andrew Lloyd Webber beginning in the 1970s. The local debut of "Les Misérables" on July 12 is living proof that these glitzy musical extravaganzas don't have to be devoid of heart and soul.
Each year around the July 24th Pioneer Day holiday the Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre presents a special Pioneers and Patriots concert. Founder and general director Michael Ballam says this year the concert will pay tribute to John Philip Sousa who came to Logan to perform in 1927.
On a recent KVNU Crosstalk program, Ballam said it will be one of the most exciting evenings we've had since Sousa played on the stage of the Capitol Theatre.
"It's now the Eccles Theatre and we are recreating that night," Ballam said. "It is going to be amazing."
Ballam said that Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre will be getting some help from Utah State University to recreate the magic of that evening 87 years ago.
"Michael Bankhead, the head of the USU Music Department who has had an amazing career with the Armed Forces music, is going to be Mr. Sousa. We found the program, quite by accident."
Ballam said the program was found in some old storage bins. He said the tribute to John Philip Sousa begins Tuesday, July 22 at 7:30 p.m. in the Eccles Theatre. It will include a 42-piece band with choir, soloists and surprises.
UTAH FESTIVAL OPERA'S LES MISERABLES IS A POWERFUL PERFOMANCE |
LOGAN — Every musical theatre fan has a list of our favorite shows—the ones they can watch over and over again, and each time experience all the emotion and passion as if for the first time. On my list is Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg's adaptation of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, which is why I jumped at the chance to review the Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre's production at the Ellen Eccles Theatre in Logan.
The well-known musical takes place in 1800's France and tells the tale of Jean Valjean, a prisoner who served 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread and for an escape attempt. When an act of mercy saves him from another prison term, he decides to turn his life around, breaking parole in the process. Despite his change of heart, Valjean is always on the run from Inspector Javert, who seeks to put Valjean back behind bars.
It took the Utah Festival Opera 18 years to gain the rights to perform Les Misérables, making it the first opera company in the world to present the show. The company gave a powerful, emotional performance, making the 18 years worth the wait. Each member of the cast had the vocals and presence of a regular production's lead. While all of the vocal performances were powerful, there was a disconcerting mix of opera and Broadway-style singing that left me confused as to whether this production was meant to be a musical theater production or an opera. Or maybe, as the name of the festival suggests, an eclectic blend of the two. Either way, I found the constant switching back and forth between the styles distracting.
Despite the clash of vocal styles, it's a shame there weren't more lead roles in Les Misérables, as this cast could have easily filled them all. But director Valerie Rachelle made every effort to give the talented ensemble time to shine. In some cases, lines that would normally be sung by a lead were given to other members of the cast, giving everyone a moment in the spotlight.
Leading this extremely talented cast was Patrick Miller, who gave a convincing and emotional portrayal of Jean Valjean. Although Miller slid into a few of the high notes, his overall performance was clear and controlled. His voice blended particularly well with Daniel Cilli, who played Inspector Javert. The baritone had a strong presence on stage and created an amazing rendition of "Stars." Leah Edwards (playing Cosette), and Vanessa Ballam (playing Fantine), both had lovely opera voices, while Tyler Olshansky (playing Eponine), held her ground with a strong musical theatre voice. Stefan Espinosa and Vanessas Schukis, who played Monsieur and Madame Thénardier, gave the performance just the right amount of energy and exaggerated, tipsy body language. There's not enough room here to list each member of the cast, but suffice it to say that the numbers featuring the entire cast blew me away—and nearly took the roof off the theater in the process.
Set designer Patrick Larson created a fully functional and versatile set. Each piece of the set flipped or rotated to create new scenes quickly and efficiently, such as when the barricade was assembled. I barely even noticed the transformations, as each set change was practically seamless. Costume designer Misti Bradford did a great job building the story of Les Misérables at hand by making sure each costume piece was appropriate to the time period. Uniforms, street clothing, wedding attire, and more were all integral in building the environment of the story.
Although I have seen Les Mis several times, I am more familiar with the school edition, and found the full Broadway version contained lots of surprising extras. I could have done without some of the changes, like the additional narration between scenes, which seemed to prolong the story without adding to it. But I enjoyed other additions, like the extended version of "Beggars at the Feast" and the brawl between Javert and Jean Valjean after Fantine's death.
This show really came down to personal preference. Although I prefer musical theater-style to opera-style in a musical theater production, I was still impressed with this rendition. Without question, the company gave an energetic, powerful performance to be proud of.
SUPERB PRODUCTION OF 'VANESSA' OPENS LOGAN'S UTAH FESTIVAL |
Michael Ballam's Utah Festival occasionally presents works not normally seen in Utah. In the past the festival has staged Giacomo Puccini's Manon Lescaut and Modest Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, both of which Utah Opera has yet to mount.
This year, it's Samuel Barber's 1958 Pulitzer Prize winning opera Vanessa, another first for the festival.
The opera, with an original libretto by Barber's partner Gian Carlo Menotti, offers a painful glimpse into the lives of Vanessa and her niece Erika as they are wooed and used by Anatol, the son of Vanessa's old lover. Barber captures the atmosphere wonderfully with his music. While it's overwhelmingly romantic, it's tinged with biting dissonances that underscore the growing tension between the two women, between Erika and Anatol and between the women and the old Baroness, Vanessa's mother. There is a brooding darkness that flows through the story that is at times quite unnerving. It's a remarkable and bold work that has unfortunately never found a permanent place in the repertoire of American opera houses.
The cast assembled for this production is stellar. Leading off is soprano Beverly O'Regan Thiele in the title role. Her portrayal is emotionally charged and finely nuanced. Vanessa is a tragic figure as she denies reality and fights so desperately to stay in the past. Thiele captured that brilliantly.
Thiele was also brilliant vocally, hitting the high notes of her demanding role with ease while still infusing her singing with a keen expressiveness. It was quite an impassioned and virtuosic presentation.
No less stunning was the mezzo-soprano Alice-Anne M. Light as Erika. She, too, captured the complexity of her role with her fabulous acting that brought conviction to her portrayal. And her singing was equally notable. Her role is no less challenging that that of Vanessa's and Light made short work of the vocal demands. Her singing was crystal pure and gorgeously lyrical.
Tenor Andrew Bidlack as Anatol held his own remarkably well. With two such powerful females voices it would be easy to get lost, but Bidlack commanded the stage when he was present and blended wonderfully in ensembles with Thiele and Light. He possesses a forceful high tenor that is perfect for this role, since Anatol is required to sing in the high register frequently.
In the role of the Doctor was the bass Richard Zuch, who sang with finely crafted expressiveness. His voice is resonant and beautifully rounded and was a wonderful contrast to the three high voices. And he showed himself an exceptional actor as well, bringing much need comic relief in his well played drunk scene in the second act.
As the stern Baroness who disapproves of Vanessa's and Erika's decisions is the mezzo-soprano Amanda Tarver. She gave a strong performance that captured perfectly the unforgiving, almost hard hearted nature of her character.
Baritone Kevin Nakatani and tenor Jon Jurgens sing the small roles of the butler and the pastor, respectively.
The stage direction, by Daniel Helfgot, was spot on; the action moved forward at a good pace. The orchestra played the difficult score marvelously under conductor Barbara Day Turner. Her tempos were well chosen and she never allowed the singers to be overpowered by the orchestra, even in the loudest passages.
This is a production that is well worth the drive to Logan to see. No one will be disappointed.
Vanessa will also be performed on July 18 and 24 at 7:30 p.m. and on Aug. 2 at 1 p.m. The opera is in repertory with Oklahoma!, The Student Prince and Les Misérables.
Thank you for joining us for our 22nd season! This year, Utah Festival is presenting my four favorite works in the genres of American Opera, Operetta and Musical Theatre. You are about to see some of the most extraordinary performers we have ever presented.
We are fast approaching the completion of the Utah Theatre, which should be ready to present shows in next year's line-up. It has been a lengthy project through which we have exercised careful planning and prudent fiscal responsibility. Built in 1924 as an opera house, it was converted to a movie house in 1945. Now she will be both! We are grateful to an extensive list of devoted friends who have enabled the rebirth of the Utah through their generosity.
I have enjoyed being on the stage for the past eight years, but it is a blessing to focus on the big picture of the Festival this year. I have needed all my concentration to focus on the wonderful projects coming to fruition. I'll be back on the stage next year in one of my favorite roles: Don Quixote in The Man of La Mancha.
This season has proven to be our most exhilarating yet! Thank you for supporting us to this point. We hope you will continue to do so by inviting your friends to our productions and through donations of any amount. Our plans for the future are so thrilling. As Jolson used to say, "You ain't seen nothin' yet!"
Founding General Director
THE BEST IN HIGH SCHOOL MUSICALS JUDGED AT USU THIS SATURDAY |
The fourth annual Utah High School Musical Theater Awards will be presented Saturday, May 10 in the Kent Concert Hall of the Utah State University Chase Fine Arts Center. The prestigious theater competition is sponsored and produced by Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre.
The director of the event, Vanessa Ballam, says more than 250 high school performers will display their talent for the live audience.
"We have students from 28 schools from across the state, the best of the best musical theater performers that will be performing production numbers from their musicals," Ballam explains. "We'll also have 50 individual finalists.
"So our finalists for Best Actor, Best Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, and our Cameo Performers will also be performing snippets from their nominated roles that evening. We will also be handing out awards for performers and technical achievement."
She says Michael Ballam, general director of the Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre, will be hosting the event. Utah Festival pays for the winners of the Best Actor and Best Actress awards to go to New York City to participate in a national competition.