A&E

Review: West Bay's 'Elisir' is pure magic

We mortal creatures are never more prone to folly than when driven by want. Desire for wealth, for status and fame. And of course, for love. Desire and folly are frequent players in 19th century opera, and one of the most robustly entertaining examples has arrived on the local stage: West Bay Opera's brilliantly staged "L'Elisir d'Amore" is being performed through this weekend in Palo Alto.

Donizetti's two-act comic opera – in English, "The Elixir of Love" -- is done full justice in this production, staged at the Lucie Stern Theatre. This small regional opera company consistently manages to attract major talent, not only in its lead roles but in its chorus and its stage design and support crews. On opening night last Friday, with support from strong orchestral players directed by company general director Jose Luis Moscovich, West Bay delivered an evening of pure magic – no potion needed.

"Elisir" tells the story of the poor Tuscan peasant Nemorino, his desire for the beautiful Adina, and the folly that his desire leads to: desperate faith in a love potion offered, for a steep price, by the traveling snake-oil salesman "doctor" Dulcamara. Although Adina plays hard to get, she is obviously fond of the simple, love-struck lad, so much so that when she falsely believes his love is fading, she agrees to wed the pompous military man, Belcore. That's only the beginning of the fun.

Venezuelan soprano Maria Fernanda Brea performs the role of Adina with splendid sauciness and charm. But the pitch-perfect mannerisms alone wouldn't have carried this demanding role; the voice is everything in bel canto (beautiful singing) opera, and Ms. Brea's voice is astonishing -- with a luscious sound and rich range. This is Ms. Brea's first role with West Bay, and one hopes it won't be her last.

Every bit as masterful as Ms. Brea in terms of vocal acrobatics is Igor Vieira, whose portrayal of Dulcamara, the quack doctor with magic to sell, could be a glittering show all its own. His is perhaps the most demanding role in the opera, with rapid-fire singing passages requiring strict control and high-style delivery. Mr. Vieira, who has performed with the San Francisco Opera and in numerous other venues in the U.S., South America and Europe, makes the role appear effortless, strutting onstage, baton twirling, and instantly moving from powerful baritone to comic falsetto with ease – or so he makes it seem.

Baritone Krassen Karagiozov is outstanding as the sergeant, Belcore. His powerful voice fully supports the arrogance of the character. And tenor Chester Pidduck, making his West Bay debut, portrays the love-struck Nemorino with charm, sweetly cooing his devotion to Adina to try to win her love.

Stage director David Cox returns to West Bay for "Elisir," and deserves a long round of applause along with the singers and musicians in this excellent production. Also to be applauded are set designer Peter Crompton and costume designer Callie Floor. From the fabulous steam-driven contraption that rolls into the village to deliver the huckster Dr. Dulcamara -- outrageously costumed in a full-length red coat, hat and glasses to match his vehicle -- to the smooth flow of action by the many choristers and supernumeraries, the stage vibrates with energy and color.

It all comes together for an audience experience no music or theater lover should miss.

Performances

Remaining performances of "Elisir d'Amore" are at 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 22; and 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 23, at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road in Palo Alto. Tickets from $40 to $75 can be purchased by calling 424-9999, or at WBOpera.org.

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