By Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Presented by Opera San José
At the California Theatre, 345 S. First St., San Jose, CA
Conducted by David Rohrbaugh
Directed by Lorna Haywood

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Opera San José had good reason to celebrate the opening of its 21st season on Sept. 18. First and foremost was the debut of its new home, the beautifully restored 1,100-seat California (Fox) Theatre in downtown San Jose. Moreover, the company's production of Mozart's "Le nozze di Figaro" was musically and dramatically delightful.

The California Theatre began life as a vaudeville and film house in 1927, when it was the first movie palace in then-bucolic San Jose. It continued in operation and passed through various owners until closing 30 years ago. The San Jose Redevelopment Agency bought it several years ago and ultimately determined to restore it for the performing arts. Two-thirds of the funds for the $75 million restoration came from the Redevelopment Agency and one-third from the Packard Humanities Institute. One stipulation of the Packard money is that the theater must also be used for classic films. (David Packard of Hewlett-Packard fame also was the driving force behind restoration of the Stanford Theater in downtown Palo Alto, which specializes in classic films.)

Besides restoring and renovating the theater itself, the project involved building a new courtyard and audience amenities next to the theater on First Street. On the Market Street side is a second lobby along with artist and staff amenities plus rehearsal rooms. The goal was to provide a state-of-the-art performance space while honoring the building's décor.

The goal has been met admirably. It's a beautiful space -- carefully detailed, comfortable, elegant but not pretentious. The acoustics also are excellent, at least from my vantage point. I sat near the back of the orchestra section under the balcony overhang and could detect no compromise in sound.

The new theater also represents a significant upgrade from Opera San José's previous downtown home at the Montgomery Theater, which has about half the number of seats, a very cramped orchestra pit and stage, and limited artist amenities. The new theater will allow the company to present productions that are more ambitious in every way.

Led by founder and general director Irene Dalis, a retired international opera star, Opera San José claims to be unique in the United States because it has a resident company of principal artists. These are gifted young professional singers who are given a year's contract to sing principal roles in the company's four productions, much like a regional company in Germany. In addition, they take part in educational and community activities and benefit from coaching by resident and guest conductors and stage directors. The goal is to prepare them for successful operatic careers.

Most of the young singers in the opening night cast of "Le nozze di Figaro" seem well on their way to successful careers. (Most of the principal roles are double-cast to alternate through the run.) All of them have good stage presence and high energy, and they blend well in ensembles.

They benefit from musical director David Rohrbaugh's attentive conducting as well as Lorna Haywood's clever stage direction. They also sport handsome costumes by Julie Engelbrecht. Pamila Z. Gray's lighting and Giulio Cesare Perrone's lovely sets also serve them well. The Act 4 garden scene puts one in mind of a Maxfield Parrish painting.

Baritone Joseph Wright is a tall, handsome Figaro with a richly resonant voice. He's well paired with soprano Sandra Rubalcava as a perky, bright-voiced Susanna. Baritone David Babinet had some initial projection problems as Count Almaviva, but he recovered well. Soprano Deborah Berioli as Countess Almaviva has a big voice but needs better control. Mezzo-soprano Michele Detwiler also had a somewhat rough start as Cherubino, but quickly adjusted to become a funny, gawky, love-struck teenaged swain.

The lesser roles are filled by tenor Etsel Skelton as Don Basilio, mezzo-soprano Molly McCabe as Marcellina, bass Jesse Merlin as Dr. Bartolo and soprano Jillian Boye as Barbarina.

Although several of the singers still need to improve their technique, all of them are clearly talented and show great promise. They're a credit to Opera San José and to its elegant new home.

For more information, see the Opera San José home page. [an error occurred while processing this directive]