West Bay Opera stages a Mozart masterpiece

'Le Nozze di Figaro' is a sprightly, saucy comedy

Always looking to puncture aristocratic pretensions, Wolfgang Mozart grabbed onto the idea of making an opera out of a French play that was banned in imperial Austria because of how it satirized the nobility. The Pierre Beaumarchais play was deemed dangerous and morally scandalous. Slipping around the censors by taking some of the venom out of its biting satire, Mozart, with the genius of his melodies, and Lorenzo da Ponte, with titillating lyrics and plot gyration, brought forth "Le Nozze di Figaro," much to the delight of audiences around the world for more than 230 years. Palo Alto's plucky West Bay Opera company opens its 61st season Oct. 14 with a new production of the composer's operatic masterpiece.

Jose Luis Moscovich, West Bay Opera's general director, has recruited a youthful cast to rise to the challenges of Mozart's brisk tempi and sprightliness, and the score's multi-layered romantic richness. He has also knitted a veteran creative team around Director Igor Vieira, who previously directed the company's "Il Trovatore."

"Le Nozze di Figaro," set in 18th century Seville, has traditional baroque staging and costumes but with a 21st century high-tech touch: Through some multi-projector work, projection designer Frederic Boulay and set designer Jean Francois Revon provide clever backdrops that can be traversed by the performers.

Moscovich is also conducting the show with an emphasis on brisk pace.

"It's almost as if we've got everyone counting in two instead of traditional four beats. We're also putting emphasis on the musicality of the recitatives which will all be done in Italian (with English supertitles) so as to communicate the humor more directly," he said.

The plot of "Le Nozze di Figaro" is a sequel to "The Barber of Seville" (immortalized in opera by Rossini). Set several years later, that titular barber and fixer is now valet to the Count Almaviva and about to be married to the countess' maid, Susanna. Susanna believes the count has plans to exercise his "droit de Seigneur" ("right of the lord," his divine power to take the virginity of any maiden in his domain). Figaro then sings his defiant "Se vuol ballare" and sets out to thwart the Count's plan.

The Count, it seems, has grown bored with his spouse's charms, which leads her to sadly sing the magical lament "Porgi Amor." Figaro sets in motion various strategies to bring the wayward noble back to his wife. One such scheme involves using a page, Cherubino, to play suitor to the Countess. Complications increase rapidly, such as the revelations about an elderly housekeeper, Marcellina, to whom Figaro pledged marriage in exchange for a loan. It turns out she actually is his mother and the one-time guardian of the Countess. The character of elderly Dr. Bartolo is actually Figaro's father. And on and on goes the convoluted plot. As it entangles and unfolds, the music grows increasingly pulsating and captivating.

Heading the cast in the title role is a Ukiah, California, native with Latin American roots: Isaiah Musik-Ayala, a bass baritone who has studied and sung in New York. His Susanna is Maya Kherani, a native of India with an upper-register soprano voice. She shares a standout duet with the Countess, played by Stacey Stofferahn.

Count Almaviva is sung by Bulgarian baritone Krassen Karagiozov, who has also performed it at Opera San Jose; the pants-role (a male role played by a woman) of Cherubino is filled by mezzo-soprano Veronica Jensen. Marcellina is sung by mezzo Michelle Rice, who also appeared as Third Lady in West Bay Opera's version of another Mozart classic: "Magic Flute."

A late starter in the opera world is Silas Elash, who began his voice and language studies at age 50. He has now established himself as a character actor/singer with many regional companies. His big bass tones have resounded with West Bay Opera as Gremin in last season's "Eugene Onegin" and he has also sung both Dr. Bartolo roles at Opera San Jose.

The versatile West Bay Opera chorus gets plenty of interesting numbers, especially in the finales to each of the four acts. These become crescendo moments as the complex plot twists go forth. The chorus even gets to dance the fandango while singing one of the climaxes.

Though it's hundreds of years old, "Le Nozze di Figaro"'s continued popularity proves good comedy -- along with good music -- can stand the test of time.

Freelance writer Mort Levine can be emailed at mortlevine123@gmail.com.

What: "Le Nozze di Figaro," in Italian with English supertitles.

When: Friday, Oct. 14, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Oct. 16, at 2 p.m.; Saturday, Oct. 22, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Oct. 23, at 2 p.m.

Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

Cost: $35-$83

Info: Go to WBO

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