Opera review: successful pairing of rarities

Final performances Saturday and Sunday

By Mort Levine

Special to the Almanac

Concluding its remarkable 55th season with two rarely seen works, West Bay Opera has brought to Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto a run of operas the company has never before performed. Each has been remarkable, but the two short operas currently on view are particularly worth attending.

"Dido and Aeneas" by Henry Purcell, one of the fathers of British opera, was written in 1689 for a Gentlewoman's School in London. The tale from Virgil's Aeneid has been done by more than 60 composers the world over. A Carthaginian queen who dies for love, and then turns her back on her lover when he seeks her out in Hades, is just too good a tale to pass by.

The second work is "La vida breve" ("Life is Brief") by Manuel de Falla, arguably 20th century Spain's best composer. His tragic heroine is a gypsy girl, Salud, who is seduced by the slick Paco from the other side of the tracks in Grenada, Spain. The passionate 16-year-old is totally devoted to him. When he marries someone of his own class, Salud confronts him after the fancy wedding and dies at his feet. After all, this is opera.

In both of these works, the composers have brought the driving force of music to carry the story in most compelling ways. Oddly, both also use dance far more creatively than most operatic works. In the Purcell it probably related to use of the young women at the school where it premiered. That performance had only one male, the Trojan War hero, Aeneas. Dance also figures powerfully in the de Falla because of an inspired collaboration with the Stanford Flamenco group and a trio of outstanding students of Spanish dance, as well as a superb Spanish guitar player, Adrian Murillo.

General Director Jose Luis Moscovich assembled an array of outstanding talents who created this successful, albeit unusual, pairing. Young Mexican stage director Ragnar Conde was adept at utilizing all of the limited stage space in the seemingly effortless movement of a 15-member chorus, a troupe of dancers, and eight principal voices in each production.

Some excellent lighting effects were designed by Robert Ted Anderson, especially in the Purcell, heightening the impact of the sorceress (well sung by Carla Lopez-Speziale) and her two witches (Alexandra Mena and Kristen Choi).

Key role of the lead soprano in both was competently handled by mezzo Cathleen Candia, who has heretofore sung lesser roles at West Bay and other regional companies. Her Aeneas was the handsomely strapping baritone Zachary Gordin, who seemed to have a bit of hesitancy in matching Dido's ardor. However, he proved powerful in his interpretation of the role of el cantoar, the flamenco singer in the de Falla.

Other noteworthy voices included high soprano Shawnette Sulker as Dido's lady in waiting and Salud's grandmother, the aforementioned Lopez-Speziale, who proved a strong character actress along with her fine mezzo soprano instrument.

The booming bass voice of Carlos Aguilar was totally effective as Salud's protective uncle Salvador. Tenor Pedro Betancourt was unconvincing as the seducer in "La vida breve" and his high tenor seemed to be overwhelmed at times in the tricky Lucie Stern acoustics.

The WBO orchestra offered up an admirable performance under the crisp baton of conductor Moscovich.

PERFORMANCES: West Bay Opera's season ends with "Dido and Aeneas" by Purcell followed by "La vida breve" by de Falla. Two more shows will run at 8 p.m. Saturday, May 28, and 2 p.m. Sunday, May 29, at Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road in Palo Alto. Tickets range from $35 to $60 at the box office (650-424-9999) or online at, where additional information can be obtained.

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