MILLVILLE — Fulfilling a dream that has been two years in the making, the Utah Opera Festival pulls off an exceptional show of the Americana opera The Tender Land, with music by Aaron Copland and libretto by Horace Everett. Performed in the beautiful foothills of Cache Valley and directed by Suzan Hanson, The Tender Land is an immersive, memorable experience.
In a setting that sets it apart from other productions, the stage is set on the idyllic white picket porch on the Griffin Farm with the grand backdrop of the Cache Valley farmland and the colorful sunset over the Wellsville Mountains. Cast members come and go through the glass paned door to the house. An old classic car drives up the driveway with the postman. Grandpa Moss comes from the garden as if from a long day of work. Kids play on the grass, and family and friends gather for a party on the porch. It was almost as if the Griffin farm truly was the Moss family home, and the audience members were silent observers seated in rows of seats on the grass.
Set in the Midwest farmland of the 1930’s The Tender Land tells the story of the Moss family meeting a couple of drifters asking for work on the farm on the night of the graduation part of their oldest daughter, Laurie. Trysten Reynolds leads the show playing Laurie Moss. Her lovely soprano voice easily carries through the music with precision and clarity. Her voice is like a song bird as she sings, “The world is so wide” at the end of Laurie’s song and shows her mastery of vocal technique as she carries the emotion of her heart break with striking dynamics during Act III.
Laurie is charmed by Martin (played by Thomas Massey), one of the drifters on the night of her party. Massey’s strong tenor voice sang loud and strong throughout the opera. He longingly sang “Let me take this picture of you with me. The house and the fields, you belong with them. Your life is here, but I’ll always keep the dream of you in my heart.” What a wonderful image of the evening to even the audience to take a picture or a memory of The Tender Land with the beautiful house and fields.
Ma Moss (played by Sarah-Nicole Carter) portrays a typical mother from the 1930s who stays at home doing the cleaning, cooking, and sewing. Her strong contralto voice sang about the blessings of the harvest. Carter’s expressions clearly portrayed the worry and skepticism of a mother with strangers around her daughter. Playing a very energetic and engaged Grandpa Moss was Michael Colman. The notes of his low bass resonate as he sang, “It promises to be a fine night,” and he held the note for an impressibely long time. Although Colman was a great actor and sang his part with expertise, he stuck out as being the only cast member who was not cast in the age range that fit the character. His painted gray hair only barely made him look older. But Lydia Semler (doing double duty as costume and hair and makeup designer) flawlessly transports the all of the cast into the 1930s with the floral dresses, aprons, and farm overalls.
Adding to the magic of the evening, the music of the live orchestra conducted by Gerald Steichen invoked nostalgic images of a past America with music that was lively, energetic, and tenderly moving. The orchestra painted images of places the drifters have been and places that they are goin’ with sounds that match the rolling hills to the busy city streets.
The lighting for the evening was timed perfectly with the natural lighting of the setting sun during Act I. The moon and star create the perfect backdrop to Act III, which takes place in the middle of the night. Lighting designer Jordyn Cozart and sound designer Tyler A. Berg brought professional lighting and sound equipment onto the location so that the audience could hear and see as if the production was on a professional stage.
As beautiful as The Tender Land looks and sounds, this will probably not be one of my favorite shows of the year due to shallow, flawed story. The outdated script from 1954 is based around the belief that love can be found in one night. I wish there were more character development and depth to Laurie and Martin before they decided to fall in love. The prejudices of the town against the drifters and Grandpa Moss towards Laurie are reflective of a time period in American history which are extremely antiquated in the 21st century.
Also, the production did have to wait an extra half an hour after the set time for the shade to cover the entire audience and the lighting to be right for the production. Getting to the venue early due to general admission and wanting to get a good seat and waiting in the hot sun for the extra half an hour was tiresome. Thankfully, Utah Festival Opera provided cold water bottles to patrons as they waited and even served everyone Aggie Ice Cream after Act I.
The production of The Tender Land by the Utah Opera Festival was a unique experience. With limited seating and a sold out show, this event felt like an exclusive event. Unfortunately, The Tender Land has a run of just two performances. As Laurie sings, “The moment each of us has watched for and dreamed of it passes by so quickly.”