“Elixir of Love” in Palo Alto

West Bay Opera brings home gold

Readers may find it tiresome when a reviewer repeatedly gushes, or names some company “the best operatic experience of the Bay Area.” Still, one wonders how Palo Alto’s tiny West Bay Opera can so bespell an audience.

In the interest of journalistic balance, I will try for a more severe look sans superlatives. Of course, seeing Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love, which opened last Friday on Valentine’s Day at the Lucie Stern Theater, would fondly blur real life and memory for many.

Artistic Director José Luis Moscovich explained part of the allure in his program notes:

“Today you get to experience L’elisir d’amore the way Donizetti would have intended it—in its original setting, and in a theater of a small size very similar to the Italian opera houses he was writing for in the 1830’s.”

“You get to see the gleam in the singers’ eyes and identify with them, and before you know it you are trapped in the story,” he said.

Of course that is only part of the explanation. The rest is due to the vision and high standards of Moscovich, a conductor who inspires excellence from his army of volunteers. And speaking of volunteers, the chorus for L’elisir crowded onto the tiny stage, firm in each part. That enthusiastic chorus of 30 alternated with scenes of intimate duets for high drama, with lively staging and direction by David Cox. It came together as a whole, a sumptuous visual experience with festive period sets by Peter Crompton and costumes by Callie Floor combining for an authentic and timeless storytelling, with the heavy chorus presence embedding us in the life of an Italian village.

Brea and Pidduck by Otak JumpTaking the lead, soprano María Fernanda Brea was the perfect Adina, conniving and sweet faced with honeyed high notes and rather unbelievable runs. This Venezuelan-born singer, completing her training in New York, is headed for an exciting career. Opposite her were two delightful baritones: Igor Vieria sang the part of the swindling potion seller, Doctor Dulcamara, with vocal opulence and finesse and genuine Commedia del Arte acting—accessorized with vaudeville cane and hat! And Krassen Karagiov was the narcissistic Belcore, a captain of the guard whose muscular delivery furthered his physical role, overdone to self-parody.

Chester Pidduck was a realistic Nemorino, his thin tenor well cast as the lovesick swain. But that lack of vocal riches was disappointing in his signature moment, Una furtiva lagrima, an aria that brought Luciano Pavarotti lasting fame. Pidduck fared better in duet with Karagiov, an unexpected alliance—vocal and storied—for two rival suitors.

And lastly, Donizetti’s gorgeous score (a superlative that is deserved), boasted eloquence in a strong reading by a reduced orchestra that crammed itself into the pit, all tightly conducted by Moscovich.

If you are tired of murder and mayhem, this comedy on the tribulations of love will be offered next weekend, Saturday, Feb. 22 at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday, Feb 23 at 2:00 p.m. at Palo Alto’s Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Rd. See wbopera.org for tickets and details.

—Adam Broner

Photo of Maria Fernanda Brea as Adina and Chester Pidduck as Nemorina; photo by Otak Jump.