UTAH FESTIVAL OPERA, Eccles Center, Logan, Wednesday through Saturday, additional performances through Aug 12, 355-2787
The Utah Festival Opera is bigger this year. It has expanded the number of productions. It has enlarged the orchestra pit. It has larger casts and a larger orchestra. And some of the productions are on a grand scale.
The good news to all of this is that it's exciting — it's exciting to see the growth in the opera company, and it's exciting to sit in the audience during the very full-sounding ensemble numbers. On the other hand, all this expansion isn't without growing pains. The downside is that the quality is a little uneven between the four main productions.
"Porgy & Bess," for example, is a first-rate production in all respects. The sets are beautiful and so are the costumes. And most importantly, the entire cast — leads, supporting roles and chorus — were terrific.
The opera begins with Alaine Rodin as Clara singing "Summertime." She does a beautiful job, and from that moment forward, it doesn't let down. All the popular hits that came out of this (e.g. "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'," "It Ain't Necessarily So") live up to high expectations, but at least as fun are the lesser-known gems (e.g. Lori Brown Mirabal as Serena mourning her dead husband in "My Man's Gone Now").
In addition to excellent vocal performances, the cast created well-rounded, sympathetic characters. Haqumai Sharpe deserves particular mention for his detestably slimy, smooth characterization of Sportin' Life, capped off with his fluid body movements.
And the brutish Crown (Ashley Howard Wilkinson) was so physically built he looked like he could rival the Incredible Hulk — which made him all the more dominating over the petite Bess (Rachelle Perry Ward). Ward (Bess) and Richard Hobson (Porgy) also deserve mention for outstanding performances in the lead roles.
The only thing in this production of "Porgy & Bess" that doesn't deserve a positive review is the set changes. They occurred frequently enough and took long enough that it brought the opera's momentum to an abrupt halt while the audience listened to various thumps and bangs backstage. Since sometimes the next scene would open with sound effects before the curtains opened, it could be a little confusing to differentiate which were the intentional sound effects and which were the accidental ones.
A lot of the things that went right in "Porgy & Bess," however, didn't go so right in "Il Trovatore." Many of the characterizations were flat and stilted, making it hard to connect emotionally to what was going on onstage. One exception is Carla Rae Cook, who deserves a nod for creating a multidimensional Azucena with weirdness and wildness.
Vocally, tenor Arthur Shen deserves mention for his fine performance as Manrico, but his counterpart, Othalie Graham (Leonora) seemed to be having some trouble in the high ranges. Her mid and low ranges had a distinctive, powerful and full beauty, but her upper ranges tended to be shrill. Her delivery also tended to be studied. And next to the other, more open voices, Michael Corvino as Count di Luna tended to sound a little "swallowed" in some of his arias.
The stage crew also seemed to have a little trouble in the second act, when the very large moon kept swinging back and forth, to the audience's distraction.
Weaknesses notwithstanding, the experience as a whole was a feast for the ears. Many of the voices were right where they should be, and even the imperfect ones had a lot to like about them. It's a big production, and the enlarged orchestra and chorus packed a punch with the "Anvil Chorus" and other group numbers.
Seeing a live production of "Show Boat" is also a grand spectacle. Bravo to Earl Battle for the gorgeous costumes, and the sets are really nice, too. Like "Porgy & Bess," this was also a very strong production all around. It's a good thing, too, or Bart Williams would have stolen the show as Cap'n Andy (as he did in Act I when he substituted for the stage players on the showboat).
This is a complex show with a lot of details to get right, and director Daniel Helfgot managed the small-scale detail and the grand sweep of the big numbers beautifully.
The only exception to this is Vanessa Schukis as Parthy. Whereas a few of years ago, she was a deliciously wicked witch in "The Wizard of Oz," this year her characters seem so one-dimensional — and that one dimension is "sour." True, Parthy makes a surprise turnaround at the end of the show, but it would have been nice to see some warmth beneath the gruff exterior all along.
Ditto for her role as Marie in "The Most Happy Fella." Again, sour — and not much else. While she was probably brought in for her ability to play a character role, her voice didn't keep up with everybody else's in her vocal number.
In terms of quality, "The Most Happy Fella" was a little bit of a roller coaster — it had some really great moments, but then there were times when everything felt like it didn't quite pull together. Mostly, the problem was that it felt like everybody wasn't quite comfortable with the production, that perhaps another week of rehearsals might fix it.
Overall, the production is charming. Michael Ballam as Tony is a plus — although he's so well known to anybody at all familiar with the Utah Festival Opera that it's hard to separate the person from the role. Kudos also to Beverly Thiele as Rosabella. It's also worth mentioning that Jo Loesser, who created the role of Rosabella and was married to Frank Loesser, was in attendance opening night.