Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - May 27, 2011

From Baroque to brilliant Romantic

Two short operas make a mixed evening with payoff

by Jeanie K. Smith

West Bay Opera is arguably one of the finer small opera companies in the country, bringing high-quality operas to the Peninsula and attracting top-notch talent for each production. It also has the guts to take on lesser-known works, choosing to broaden its repertoire rather than continually repeat the usual canonic warhorses.

The latest production is an excellent example of this, pairing the one-act "Dido & Aeneas," written in the mid-1600s by Henry Purcell, with "La Vida Breve," a two-acter by Manuel de Falla from 1913.

Both operas cover tragic love and women dying from grief and heartbreak, but that's where the similarity ends. "Dido" is a rather fanciful, perhaps allegorical, retelling of one chapter of Virgil's "Aeneid," wherein the Queen of Carthage (Cathleen Candia) has a brief but intense romance with Trojan hero Aeneas (Zachary Gordin), only to kill herself after an evil sorceress (Carla Lopez-Speziale) lures him away.

The voices are superb, Candia's liquid-velvet sound matching beautifully with Gordin's solid baritone, and both are appealing protagonists. Candia capably sails through the better-known arias, "Dido's Lament" and "Ah, Belinda." Secondary voices are strong in their own right, including Lopez-Speziale's excellent mezzo as the sorceress, and Shawnette Sulker as Belinda. Lopez-Speziale almost steals the show with her wonderful writhing and hip-swinging sorcery. The corseted costumes of the three witches, reminiscent of the busty figurines from ancient Crete and designed by Abra Berman, created a bit of a buzz.

In addition, stage director Ragnar Conde's inventive staging delivers engaging visuals and action galore — and a little welcome skin, too.

It must be noted, though, that the music can be challenging for the modern ear. One needs to understand the Baroque sensibility with regard to line and flourish, and not expect a lush Romantic sound. There are long stretches of melodic flourishes that may not sound like standard operatic fare to an audience unused to this musical era. The score is somewhat in question, although it is frequently hailed as a great example of early English opera.

The payoff for your Baroque education comes after intermission, with the stunning Romantic music of de Falla and a most unusual opera, reflecting the composer's interest in his culture and the music of his country. The modern ear is rewarded with gorgeous orchestral passages, soaring lyrical arias and a story steeped in Spanish folktale.

Young gypsy Salud (Candia) is in love with higher-class Paco (Pedro Betancourt), who throws her over to marry wealthy Carmela (Alexandra Mena). Salud leans on her grandmother (Lopez-Speziale) and her uncle (Carlos Aguilar), but they can't spare her the heartbreak that ultimately kills her.

Act One sets the stage for Salud's betrayal, and includes marvelous solos from Candia as well as a touching duet for Betancourt and her. Act Two puts us at the wedding party, with fabulous flamenco dances from Julia Schmitt, Javier Fresquez and Rose Leitner, set to perhaps the best-known music from the opera. As Paco's betrayal unfolds, Salud weakens, and finally succumbs in her uncle's arms — but not before she has a chance to expose his double-dealing.

"La Vida Breve" is not often performed, being relatively short as operas go, but also for the musical challenges presented to orchestra and singers, and the need for genuine flamenco dancers. Opera lovers should thrill at the chance to see this operatic gem, especially with this fine staging.

Candia shows her mettle in another iconic role; Betancourt's pleasing vocals make up for the nasty character (he graciously takes playful boos from the audience at curtain call); and Aguilar, always a West Bay favorite, admirably fulfills the uncle's role. Lopez-Speziale is so completely transformed and terrific as the abuela that one scarcely realizes she was also the gleefully wicked sorceress.

If you find the first opera taxing, don't give up — stick around for the gratifying finish of de Falla, well worth the wait.

What: "Dido and Aeneas," by Henry Purcell, and "La Vida Breve," by Manuel de Falla, presented on one bill by West Bay Opera

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

When: Remaining performances on May 28 at 8 p.m. and May 29 at 2 p.m.

Cost: $35-$60

Info: Go to http://wbopera.org or call 650-424-9999.

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