The negative: Sometimes the pacing flags. Choices can veer toward cheesy, and the whole thing often suffers from the apparent notion that longer is better. Not only can the shows themselves occasionally drag a bit, but you have never seen so many intermissions. Manon Lescaut, for example, incorporates a whopping three of them, which, at about 20 minutes each, add a whole hour to the two-plus the singers spend on stage. Really, nobody needs to go to the bathroom that many times in one evening.
Despite its aggravations, the festival can be rewarding, and not just because of the prospect of Aggie ice cream after a matinee. Every summer, something is worth the drive.
This year, it’s a handful of pretty good singers and one very talented soprano, plus some nice set pieces. The best combination of singers and staging comes together in Aida, Verdi’s Egyptian-themed drama. Directed by New York-based veteran Beth Greenberg, it moves along nicely (and includes only 35 total minutes of intermission). In a juicy and imaginative story, Aida (Marie-Adele McArthur), an Ethiopian princess, toils as a slave to Egyptian princess Amneris (Lisa van der Ploeg). Aida’s father and his armies suffer a defeat at the hands of Egypt’s greatest war hero, Radames (Arthur Shen)—who happens to be Aida’s lover.
Aida must choose between supporting her people and following her love, and Radames must do the same. It won’t end well for either. But the most tragic figure here is Amneris, who also loves Radames and who deals with his rejection by making sure he gets punished. With her, there’s no deception. She knows what she wants, and she says so, and she doesn’t get it. She becomes the catalyst for her rivals’ doom, and she regrets it later.
Van der Ploeg plays Amneris with expressive acting and emotional singing, forcing us to sympathize with her. As Aida, McArthur is capable but not effortless. Her generally strong singing is hard to notice over a costume, makeup and wig combo so unflattering, it was distracting.
The best singing comes from the other highlight of this festival season: Irina Ridzuner as Manon Lescaut, another female character who turns out to be both heroine and villainess in Puccini’s opera about her. Playing the young woman who wants both her impoverished young lover des Grieux (Marcos Aguiar) and the good life her wealthy older suitor Geronte (Bojan Knezevic) gives her, Ridzuner is lovely and luminous. She has a habit of shyly tilting her head to one side, giving us an idea of why these men fall in love with her, even though she’s clearly trouble. The rest of the cast doesn’t quite match her performance, but as with all of Utah Festival Opera’s productions, the supporting cast is up to the job and the choruses are compelling (the male choruses are especially good).
The festival combines opera and modern musical theater; this year, the musicals include Into the Woods and 1776. The latter seems to be popular, and the questions it raises are certainly as relevant today as ever: Is it treason to question your government? On what should a nation be founded, and what’s worth fighting for? And what is the best way for government officials to represent their constituencies?
Unfortunately, Sherman Edwards’ creation is a musical without a whole lot of music. There is a whole lot of talking; for such an interesting subject, the language can be pretty lame. And most of the real action takes place offstage. We hear about the Revolutionary War through glum dispatches from George Washington, an otherwise effective idea that doesn’t do much to break up the wordiness. Despite fine performances by everyone involved, the play feels like being there—in that the fussing over the Declaration of Independence seems to go on for weeks.
Into the Woods—Stephen Sondheim’s convoluted and sometimes frenetic homage to the Brothers Grimm, fleshes out the festival. It riffs on fairy tales including Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and Jack and the Beanstalk, sending all the characters into the same enchanted woods at the same time and throwing their troubles together into one big stew. Sondheim’s 20-year-old tunes can feel a bit dated and shallow, but they’re bolstered by an occasional clever lyric and particularly entertaining performances by Utah Festival Opera veterans Joy Hermalyn as the Witch and Lee Daily as the Baker. A duo of charming but not very bright princes (Kyle Pfortmiller and Mark Womack) provide ample comic relief.
All in all, if you’re looking for decent opera in summertime, the festival is a generally a welcome oasis. And Logan in summer is not a bad place to be. If you’re headed in that direction, you might try what tends to be both the most predictable and unpredictable musical event of summer.
AIDA Utah Festival Opera, Ellen Eccles Theater, 43 S. Main, Logan, 800-262-0074. Through Aug. 9. UFOC.org