Almanac

Arts & Entertainment - May 26, 2010

Review: West Bay Opera's 'La Traviata' makes magic in a tuneful, splendid production

by Mort Levine

The banner in front of the Lucie Stern Theatre's facade in Palo Alto proclaims Verdi's "La Traviata," but it could easily be written as "The Miracle on Middlefield Road." This richly presented and sung standard of the opera repertory shows what a collaboration of a well-balanced cast of energetic young singers along with a talented orchestra and a team of very creative, resourceful opera professionals can accomplish even with major funding shortfalls in the current economy.

West Bay Opera's 54th season winds up next weekend, Saturday and Sunday, May 29 and 30, with this not-to-be-missed Traviata.

The opera is set in a gaudy 19th century Paris and its title translates as "The Fallen Woman," but Verdi gives us a heroine who is admirable and with whom, by the opera's tragic end, we come to totally sympathize. Singing the lead as Violetta, the kept-woman who seeks true love, is lyric soprano Karen Slack, who is verging on a break-out into major houses. She has sung to acclaim at the Metropolitan already as a fill-in for an ailing colleague, and has won a number of singing competitions.

Her passionate true love is Alfredo, a naive scion of a wealthy family. The role is sung by another newcomer to West Bay Opera, Jesus Leon, a sweet-voiced high tenor from Mexico, who has also been a winner of a number of competitions and programs for young singers around the world.

The third key role is Alfredo's father, Giorgio Germont, portrayed by Zachary Gordin, a young high baritone who adds gravitas and sensitivity as he becomes aware that in breaking up the lovers, he is also witnessing her demise. Desolate and ill with tuberculosis, Violetta collapses in death at the opera's conclusion.

Stage director Richard Harrell, who heads a strong opera program at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, works magic, despite the small stage, to create the two rollicking ballroom scenes in what is otherwise a rather intimate, almost chamber opera. One of these features the marvelous brindisi drinking song: "Libiamo ne' lieti calici." The other includes a neatly choreographed gypsy-toreador ballet highlighting Julia Schmitt and Jennifer Mitchell.

The enthralling sweep of the arias, duets and ensemble singing shows the genius of Verdi, who makes his own melodic magic.

Another newcomer who adds his needed magic is John Kendall Bailey, the conductor, who founded Berkeley Lyric Opera. His supple control of his small orchestra provides the ideal balance for the singers. Peter Crompton's elegant sets and Callie Floor's costumes set a high standard adding to the total effect.

PERFORMANCES

West Bay Opera performs Verdi's "La Traviata" at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road in Palo Alto, at 8 p.m. Saturday, May 29, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, May 30. Go to wbopera.org for more information.

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