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Logan • Mozart's searing "Don Giovanni" opened the Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre's 19th season on Thursday in a handsome production that takes the audience to the heart of a morality tale. Later that evening, UFOMT opened its tour-de-force production of Lionel Bart's "Oliver!" with company boss Michael Ballam leading the way.
"Don Giovanni" • Librettist Lorenzo da Ponte collaborated with Mozart on three of the composer's most famous works: "The Marriage of Figaro," "Così fan tutte" and "Don Giovanni."
Even though the composer labeled the latter work "opera buffa," it's the darkest blend of text and music in his oeuvre. The title character is thought to be modeled after Giacomo Casanova, an Italian adventurer with whom Mozart and da Ponte were acquainted. It's also possible that Mozart was influenced by his own dalliances and the judgmental shadow cast over him by his often-disapproving father.
Director Daniel Helfgot and conductor Barbara Day Turner orchestrated a nearly flawless dramatic flow in UFOMT's production. Deft staging and comic side-trips compensated for a few lapses by singers and onstage musicians that led to momentary loss of synchronicity with the orchestra.
The opera's thrust revolves around the dynamic performance of New York baritone Mark Womack as Giovanni. With dark, wavy hair, chiseled features and a lean look worthy of a soap-opera star, he filled the role with unapologetic swagger. No stranger to a mirror, the character revealed his narcissistic motivation with the line, "Loyalty to one is just cruelty to others." Womack's burnished voice, tinged with sinister intent, was commanding when boasting of conquests but flowed with libidinous charm when wooing unsuspecting maidens.
His sidekick Leporello, played with understated wit by baritone Stephanos Tsirakoglou, was a fascinating study of brilliant timing, potent humor and a quicksilver tongue. Those attributes made the aria "Madamina, il catalago è questo," listing his employer's conquests and preferences with visual aids from a book, a comic treat.
A trio of singers provided the moral counterbalance to Giovanni's infamy: soprano Rochelle Bard as the outraged Donna Anna, soprano Eleni Calenos as the conflicted Donna Elvira and tenor Jordan Bluth as Don Ottavio, Donna Anna's fiancé. Bard sang beautifully, with honed technique, legato phrasing and elegant tone, but Calenos stood out, soaring to bel canto perfection.
Bluth was less successful, showing little emotional investment dramatically or vocally until the second-act aria "Il mio tesoro," when he swears to defend Donna Anna's honor with suitable backbone.
Molly Mustonen as Zerlina and Gabriel Preisser as Masetto were extraordinary as a young couple celebrating their marriage. Their union is threatened by Giovanni's desire to have his way with the bride, providing some of the opera's most lyric and comic moments.
Kristopher Irmiter gave a chilling performance as Donna Anna's father, the Commendatore, slain by Giovanni. The Commendatore returns from the grave in the form of a statue, avenging his death by dragging the unrepentant scoundrel to his doom.
The opera ended with the same terrifying D-minor chord that opened the work, mercifully leaving out the traditionally performed ending ensemble that Mozart wrote to explain the story's moral and soften the ending's tragic edge.
"Oliver!" • Lionel Bart's musical adaptation of Charles Dickens' novel Oliver Twist opened in London's West End in 1960, moved to Broadway in 1963 and became a successful movie five years later.
The reason for its ongoing popularity becomes obvious the moment 17 young boys opened their mouths, singing "Food, Glorious Food," in UFOMT's brilliant production.
Led by Michael Ballam as Fagin and 11 year-old Jace Salcido as Oliver, the strong cast created a captivating and memorable tour-de-force.
What's amazing is Ballam's physical and dramatic transformation from company to the flawed but caring father figure of a bunch of larcenous orphans. Facial prosthetics, a stooped posture and an Eastern European Jewish accent mirrored the character in Dickens' tome, but Bart's musical version lends Fagin a more sympathetic demeanor.
Singing "You've Got to Pick a Pocket or Two," Ballam showed particular veracity, given the fact that as the company's leader, he is forced to figuratively pick any number of pockets to keep the organization solvent.
Salcido charmed the audience with a clear soprano and unaffected acting. As a runaway from a workhouse, his character encounters colorful people, including workhouse warden Mr. Bumble, played with suitable bluster by A.J. Glueckert, and Widow Corney, characterized with vivid facial expression by UFOMT veteran Vanessa Schukis.
Oliver is sold to the undertakers, Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry, played with macabre relish by bass Kevin Nakatani and soprano Laura Quest. They are gangly characters, seemingly pulled from a Tim Burton animated film with big voices and broad comic appeal.
Scott Russell's menacing Bill Sykes, Jessica Medoff's passionate Nancy, Cameron Conrad's spirited Artful Dodger and Brigid Kegel's energetic Bet were also standouts.
The artistic and production staff, led by director Jack Shouse and conductor Karen Keltner, sent a well-honed show out of the gates with few flaws. But the production focused on vocal prowess and dramatic potency with only cursory attention given to choreography. That's possibly understandable considering the cramped stage might send more aggressive dancers into the orchestra pit.
The show's climactic showdown on London Bridge seemed a bit too tidy, but segued quickly to Fagin's poignant reprise of "Pick a Pocket" and a cleverly staged sequence for the cast to take their bows sure to send the audience home humming one of the show's appealing tunes.
Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre
P Impressive production values and a depth of talent are reasons to make an artistic pilgrimage to Logan.
What • "Don Giovanni" and "Oliver!"
When • Reviewed Thursday, July 7; productions run in repertory with Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov" and Rodgers and Hammerstein's "South Pacific" through Aug. 5.
Where • Ellen Eccles Theatre, 43 S. Main St., Logan
Tickets • $12-$76; at http://www.ufoc.org or 435-750-0300 ext. 106 or 800-262-0074.
Running time • "Don Giovanni," 3 hours, 15 minutes with a 20-minute intermission; "Oliver!," 2 ½ hours with one 20-minute intermission.