The latest production from West Bay Opera mounts two much-beloved one-acts in the opera canon: "Cavalleria Rusticana," by Pietro Mascagni, and "Pagliacci," by Ruggero Leoncavallo. Although short, both contain music that has crossed over into the popular arena and that will be familiar to listeners. And both contain timeless themes of infidelity and revenge -- passions run high and the blood runs freely in the streets of Southern Italy as justice is exacted for crimes of lust.
In "Cavalleria," Turiddu (Vincent Chambers) lost his true love, Lola (Cathleen Candia), to marriage when he was away. On his return, he takes up with Santuzza (Gail Sullivan) as consolation, gets her pregnant, and then abandons her to renew his affair with Lola. The opera covers the few hours on a single Easter Sunday when all of this comes to light and Santuzza, feeling vengeful, gives the hint to Lola's husband, Alfio (Alex Britton). The consequences are the stuff of classic tragedy: inexorable, fateful, and severe.
"Pagliacci" covers similar ground, but has the added attraction of a play within a play, as the main characters make up a traveling troupe of commedia players. Canio (Scott Six), the leader of the troupe, keeps a jealous eye over his restless wife, Nedda (Sharon Maxwell). But he's not looking closely enough to see that she already has a lover in town, Silvio (Sascha Joggerst), or that his own employee, Tonio (David Hodgson) has designs on her, too.
Nedda just wants release from her loveless marriage and plans to run away with Silvio. But rebuffed Tonio makes sure that Canio overhears the plan, setting deadly dominos into action. The brief, charming respite from tragic tension comes when the troupe performs their commedia for the town. This then becomes the scene for murder.
The double bill makes for a double dose of intense emotion, but it's oddly uplifting, owing to the soaring music and superb singing. The principals in both shows deliver first-rate performances, soaking the stage with passion and filling the hall with splendid sound. In an evening of consistent excellence, standouts included Sullivan as Santuzza, with a powerhouse voice, and Chambers as Turiddu, whose lofty, effortless vocals matched his relaxed, rakish insolence.
Six was a wonderful surprise as the hapless Canio, warming to his famous aria with a convincing character and a terrific voice that managed to sound both beautiful and ragged with emotion. Hodgson, as Tonio, gives us a melodious prologue and a solid character performance rivaling even Canio.
Maxwell possesses a beautiful, liquid tone, and was thoroughly effective as Nedda, even delightfully funny in the commedia, although occasionally it was hard to hear her. She is clearly capable of volume, but seemed to hold back at times. Joggerst, her partner for a long love scene, charms with his attractive tone.
The ensemble is quite talented vocally, providing dependable support for the principal singers and much of the local atmosphere in both plays. Now and then there seemed to be some hesitation around blocking, but that could have been opening-night jitters. The orchestra, under Jose Luis Moscovich, is outstanding as always.
Sets, both by Jean-Francois Revon, marvelously capture the different locales with clever economy yet plenty of colorful detail. The large stage-wagon in "Pagliacci" is particularly remarkable. Costumes, by Richard W. Battle, serve the characters and setting well in "Pagliacci," moving the period for the piece from the 1890s to a more contemporary day. There is even a kind of Midwestern feel to it, as if Pagliacci's troupe wandered into a small farming community in 1930s Oklahoma.
The choice to put all the women of "Cavalleria" in black, save Lola, was puzzling, and felt too symbolic. Since the men weren't in somber colors, the large flock of black dresses and shawls seemed odd, and weighed down the overall design.
However, these are minor observations -- the spectacle of opera should be lovely, but it's the voices we really care about, and this production has those in abundance. What's noteworthy is that the two casts trade places each performance: Chambers becomes Canio and Six becomes Turiddu, for example. Having heard these fabulous voices in their opening night configuration, I'm tempted to return just to hear them in the other roles as well.
What: "Cavalleria Rusticana" by Pietro Mascagni, and "Pagliacci," by Ruggero Leoncavallo, presented by West Bay Opera
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre at 1305 Middlefield Road in Palo Alto
When: Through Oct. 21, with 8 p.m. shows Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. matinees on Sundays
Cost: Tickets are $15-$50.
Info: Go to www.wbopera.org or call 650-424-9999.