MILLVILLE – The Tender Land is the crowning achievement of a triumphant season for the Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre.

It’s the perfect show in the perfect setting with the perfect cast.

The Tender Land is the only opera that Aaron Copland, the dean of American composers, ever wrote. It is a coming of age tale, complete with a tragic love story, set in the Midwest during the Great Depression.

Copland peopled his opera with characters true to the American heartland – they are plain-spoken, traditional and wary of strangers.

Copland wanted The Tender Land to have a warm and personal feeling, so the seldom-produced composition plays badly in gigantic opera houses. But Logan impresario Michael Ballam wisely knew the perfect setting for the opera – the home of his right-hand man Gary Griffin in Millville.

The Griffin farm is a lovely pastoral setting, with a traditional home surrounding by flowering gardens.

Into that setting, Ballam brought stage lights, a small army of technicians, a 13-piece orchestra and 350 chairs for the audience. It was an enormous undertaking and a risky one given Cache Valley’s sometimes unpredictable weather.

The serenity of the farm was undisturbed, however. As the sun set prior to the opera’s opening, a slight breeze reminded the audience members that they were visitors in the midst of a real-life, bucolic dream setting.

The entire production felt like a gift that Ballam and Griffin were sharing with 350 intimate friends.

Ballam left the direction of The Tender Land in the capable hands of Suzan Hanson. She performed memorably opposite Ballam during the UFOMT’s scaled-down 2021 season and previously. Ms. Hanson is also thoroughly familiar with The Tender Land, having sung as Laurie on the opera’s cast-recording.

Under her direction, the opera remained – as Copland intended — plain, simple and poignant.

The cast was, without exception, simply marvelous.

The attractive soprano Trysten Reynolds sensitively portrayed the restless farm girl Laurie Moss with a brilliant vocal performance.

Ms. Reynold’s initially played the role as naïve, but blossomed into womanhood when she met the drifter Martin. Their romance was as sudden as a summer thunderstorm and as brief. Heartbroken, but still hopeful, she sets out in the world confidently as the opera closes.

Having recently portrayed Prince Tamino in the UFOMT production of The Magic Flute, Thomas Massey is back as Martin in an even more impressive performance here.

Nathaniel Voth plays the rascally Top, the sidekick who lures Martin out of Laurie’s arms and back into their vagabond ways.

Michael Colman was convincing as the old-fashioned and protective Grandpa Moss and Sara-Nicole Carter was equally so as Laurie’s bewildered mother.

Asa Brady was charming as Laurie’s kid sister Beth, in a vivacious, mostly speaking role.

Rounding out the named cast were Jonathon Ray as the postman Mr. Splinters; Christina Casey Ray as his wife and toddler Lucy Ray as Baby Splinters.

The opera’s first act introduced those main characters. The second act – Laurie’s graduation party — belonged to the chorus, with the exception of a touching love duet between Ms. Reynolds and Massey that was simple and sweet.

That ensemble — featuring Nicolas Andruzzi, Carlie Beckert, Sophia Emanuel, Elizabeth Fisher, Jasmine Ismail, Benjamin Krutsch, Nini Marchese, Grace Skinner, Matthew Soibelman, Christina J. Swanson, Logan Wagner, Gabriel and Caden Webb – sang their hearts out.

For the sake of authenticity, Hanson took the risk of including infant Lucy Ray in the party scene. Lucy became the center of attention for many of the female members of the ensemble, but the little trouper never made a peep during the lengthy scene.

The opera’s final act belonged to Ms. Reynolds and she played the abandoned Laurie with convincing anguish.

Under the direction of Gerald Steichen, the orchestra of nine strings, three woodwinds and a keyboard performed Copland’s lyrical score with appropriate feeling.

Getting into and out of the Griffin farm could have been a nightmare for the capacity audience, but for the efforts of a host of volunteers who managed parking and seating as well as distributing water, fans and unexpected free Aggie ice cream. The complex logistics of performing outdoors functioned like a well-oiled machine. Kudos to all.

The final performance of The Tender Land will be Saturday. As of Friday morning, the UFOMT box office reported that only four tickets are remaining for that performance.

The only question after The Tender Land is how will Ballam try to top this achievement in future UFOMT seasons.

It will be hard.

But I doubt that will stop him from trying.

 



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