Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - May 28, 2010

Magic on Middlefield

West Bay's 'La Traviata' brings sweeping melody and rich presentation to the Lucie Stern Theatre

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, May 29 and 30, with this "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 breakout into major houses. She has already sung to acclaim at the Metropolitan Opera in New York as a fill-in for an ailing colleague, and has won a number of singing competitions.

Violetta's 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 in various countries.

The third key role is Alfredo's father, Giorgio Germont, portrayed by Zachary Gordin, a young high baritone. Gordin's portrayal adds gravitas and sensitivity as Germont becomes aware that in breaking up the lovers, he is also witnessing Violetta's 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 West Bay newcomer who adds his needed magic is conductor John Kendall Bailey, 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.

What: "La Traviata," presented by West Bay Opera in Italian with English titles

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

When: Saturday, May 29, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, May 30, at 2 p.m.

Cost: Tickets are $30 to $55.

Info: Call 650-424-9999 or go to http://www.wbopera.org for ticketing and more information.

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