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Logan • The Ellen Eccles Theatre's intimate environment might suggest a small-town operation. But Michael Ballam and his staff at Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre have built an internationally recognized music festival, drawing established and upcoming performers from around the world.
'Faust • When Johann Wolfgang von Goethe penned his tragic play "Faust," he was creating his own spin on a familiar European legend about a man who sells his soul to the devil.
French composer Charles Gounod's work heightens the tale's melodramatic elements while excluding Goethe's psychological posturing, but it's the composer's melodic score that has kept the work a favorite.
Director Daniel Helfgot used traditional staging and took some common cuts, including act five's orgiastic Walpurgis Night ballet scene, to make the opera's length manageable. It was sung in French with projected English subtitles.
Marc Schreiner, singing the title role, thrilled with a sustained high "C" during the third act's "Salut! demeure chaste et pure," extolling Marguerite's virtues. But the handsome tenor's lyric voice was ultimately underpowered with acting that at times seemed studied.
Utah favorite Kristopher Irmiter's tonally vivid sound adapted cagily with each enticement and devilish exploit. As the opera's puppet-master, he made dancers jerk uncontrollably during the famous waltz scene and shamelessly stole attention with each on-stage appearance.
Beautiful soprano Jessica Medoff as Marguerite matched well with Schreiner physically and vocally, but her frequent subtle shading didn't always project. Still, duets with Schreiner achieved an intimate delicacy, assisted by conductor Barbara Day Turner's sensitive support.
The relatively brief role of Marguerite's brother Valentin was sung thrillingly by baritone Kyle Pfortmiller, who also has leading roles in "Kiss Me Kate" and "My Fair Lady, whose aria "Avant de quitter ces lieus," sung before leaving for battle, was the opera's vocal highlight. Then his riveting act four singing astonished as he condemned Marguerite with his dying breath.
The towering stone walls of designer Shawn Fisher's versatile set easily transformed from Faust's study to a garden and a prison. Most impressive was the atmosphere created during the church scene with a suspended crucifix angled to catch the window's filtered light, conceived by lighting designer Chad Bonaker.
While angelic and demonic forces battled over Marguerite's soul, inaudible off-stage singing and annoying sound fluctuations from an electronic organ shattered the illusion, something that should be corrected in subsequent performances. The production had a few moments that seemed hokey to modern eyes, but the cast made the performance a memorable event.
'Kiss Me Kate' • Cole Porter's biggest hit "Kiss Me Kate" is based on Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" but it's also a play within a play about an acting company's production of the Bard's work.
Predictably, the line between characters' real life personas and their Shakespearian roles began to blur, and director/choreographer Maggie L. Harrer successfully illuminated the type of sophisticated satire that Porter, who's both composer and librettist, does so well.
As the curtain went up, actor/director Fred Graham (Petruchio), played with egotistical relish and vocal prowess by Kyle Pfortmiller, was planning a production of "The Shrew," casting his movie-star ex-wife Lilli (Kate), played deliciously by Vanessa Ballam as the unmanageable Kate.
His obvious type-casting extended to the other leading couple, Fred's current love interest, the fickle Lois (Bianca), played charmingly by Siobhan Doherty, and her gambler-boyfriend Bill (Lucentio), played by triple-threat Ben Houghton.
The show's clever mirrored circumstances give birth to some of Porter's best known songs, including "Another Op'nin', Another Show," belted with Broadway gusto by Vanessa Schukis as Hattie, "Brush Up Your Shakespeare," drawing cheers for character actors Lee Daily and Daniel Quintana as bumbling gangsters and "Too Darn Hot," delivered with vocal and choreographic flair by Kevin Nakatani and the chorus.
Pfortmiller and Ballam put a memorable stamp on some of the less familiar tunes Pfortmiller with the silly rhymes of "Where is the Life that Late I Led?" and Ballam with "I Hate Men" both were show-stoppers.
At Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre, voice is king, and choreography holds peasant status, but this production took a giant dance step forward, successfully incorporating styles from ballet to tap. Conductor Barbara Day Turner detailed the score's rhythmic inventiveness and deceptively complex musical forms with the company's superb orchestra, and talented chorus that not only sang but danced with vigor.
Phillip R. Lowe's colorful costumes and Robert Little's clever set, parts of which unfolded to create different scenes, all added to this commendable production.
Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre
P A brilliantly sung, old-school staging of "Faust" and a toe-tapping "Kiss Me Kate" provide first-class entertainment.
Where • Ellen Eccles Theatre, 43 S. Main St., Logan
'Faust' • Reviewed July 12; continues July 21 and Aug. 3, 7:30 p.m.; July 27 and Aug. 11, 1 p.m.
'Kiss Me Kate' • reviewed July 12; continues July 14 and 27 and Aug. 9, 7:30 p.m.; July 20 and 26 and Aug. 4 and 10, 1 p.m.
Running time • "Faust," 3 hours with two 15 minute intermissions; "Kiss Me Kate," 3 hours with one 20 minute intermission
Also • In repertory with "Tosca," which plays through Aug. 10; and "My Fair Lady," which continues through Aug. 11.
More • The company's special concerts include a Tribute to Judy Garland, July 19 at 1 p.m. and July 28 at 7:30 p.m.; and Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" Aug. 8 at 6:30 p.m.
Tickets • $9-$76; series tickets $38-$304. 435-750-0300 for info, 1-800-262-0074 for tickets or http://www.ufomt.org for show schedule.