Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - October 22, 2010

A tale of love, honor and redemption

West Bay Opera applies its magic to Verdi masterpiece

by Mort Levine

West Bay Opera in Palo Alto is 55 years old and it has waited all this time to present Giuseppe Verdi's "La Forza del Destino," the massively complex and convoluted tale of love, honor and spiritual redemption.

It was worth waiting for. Within its nearly four hours is some of the most beautiful dramatic opera music ever written. In many ways, it was a remarkable achievement for the regional company.

The title's translation could be "the power of destiny." And it may be that West Bay was compelled by fate to tackle such an awesome assignment. WBO has the array of outstanding singers, and a dedicated creative team of artistic specialists in operatic music, staging, set design and all the myriad other tasks involved in this most complex performance medium.

And Midpeninsula audiences are highly supportive of reaching beyond the old familiar offerings. This season, West Bay's entire schedule is made up of works few regional opera theaters ever take on.

"Forza" takes us back to the 1740s in Spain and Italy. The proud Marquis of Calatrava is shocked to discover his daughter, Leonora, is about to elope with Alvaro, a Peruvian half-caste (although he is an Inca prince).

When Alvaro's pistol is tossed away, it accidentally kills the father. This sets in motion a commitment on the part of Carlo, Leonora's brother, to kill both of the lovers, who separately reach a monastery where Carlo forces a duel and is himself killed, but not before he has mortally stabbed his sister.

Offstage, fortunately. Leonora's anguished death brings her wish for her lover's redemption.

Outstanding voices and strong dramatic acting marked all of the principals. Leonora is sung by the young Russian soprano Olga Chernisheva whose versatility was heard in the title role of Manon Lescaut last season at West Bay. Her vibrant aria renditions, such as "Pace, Pace Mio Dio," evoked memories of Leontyne Price and Maria Callas in earlier days in this role.

Her Inca prince, Don Alvaro, is sung by tenor Percy Martinez, who is actually a native of Peru. Carlo is Gabriel Manro, a powerful baritone making his first company appearance, who seemed to thrive on the evil deeds to which fate was driving him.

Several other key singing roles were critical to the total impact, especially in bringing forth the many changes of mood, a hallmark of the late Verdi operas. The outstanding acting talents coupled with strong vocal presentations came from mezzo soprano Michele Detwiler as the feisty gypsy army camp follower, Preziosilla; bass-baritone Peter Graham was pivotal in the calming, authoritative role of Padre Guardiano; and a contrasting clerical role of the bumbling Friar Melitone, was well-sung by Carl King in his WBO debut.

The adult and boys chorus takes on special duties in "Forza," more so than most Verdi operas. Led by the booming bass of Carlos Aguilar, the chorus was almost as critical as the principals in moving the story forward.

Credit much of the success to the theatrical wisdom and experience of director David Ostwald, a Portola Valley resident when he isn't in New York. The director amazingly was able to move huge forces seamlessly around the small stage. One scene even used all of the aisle space at Lucie Stern for a candlelight march by the monks.

Conductor of the opera Michel Singher not only did the reduction of the score from a huge symphonic orchestra to a 30-piece ensemble, he also guided the talented set of musicians in the small pit, but over video monitors in several spaces he could not see. His superb command brought out the fullness of the score despite the orchestra's spatial limitations. The theater's intimate size allowed excellent balances between the voices and the instruments.

Gifted veteran WBO set designer Jean-Francois Revon created a giant tapestry that depicts scenes from the opera much in the style of what might be hanging in a Spanish grandee's castle. Each area was illuminated like a storyboard by lighting designer Robert Ted Anderson.

British costume designer Claire Townsend made her debut dressing the company in appropriate 18th-century color tones and style.

What: West Bay Opera presents Giuseppe Verdi's "La Forza del Destino."

When: Saturday, Oct. 23, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 24, at 2 p.m.

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

Tickets: $40-$60

Information: Go to http://www.wbopera.org or call 650-843-3900.

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