Reviewed by Judy Richter
Grand opera on an intimate scale. That's what West Bay Opera delivers in the small, but cozy Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto. While the small stage precludes the sort of spectacle one sees in larger houses, WBO maintains the grand of grand opera in the most important area -- the music -- in its new production of Giuseppe Verdi's Il Trovatore.
It has been several years since this reviewer has seen a WBO production. During that time the company's long-time leader and co-founder, Maria Holt, died. Despite the loss, the company appears to be thriving. This Il Trovatore is a credit to her memory, offering its capacity audience a well-balanced roster of excellent singers, at least in the Saturday night performance covered by this review. WBO double-casts principal roles.
One of the major improvements in this production over some in the past is the orchestra. Music director Ernest Fredric Knell presides over a small but musically refined ensemble that captures the nuances and rises to the technical challenges of Verdi's thrilling music. Knell and his instrumentalists also provide sensitive accompaniment to the singers.
All of the singers in this cast come with strong credentials from regional opera companies and orchestras. All evidence excellent vocal and technical training. They differ in their acting abilities.
The women, led by soprano Pamela Hicks as Leonora and mezzo-soprano Zoila Muñoz as Azucena, deliver the most well-rounded performances. Both vocally and dramatically, they convincingly portray their characters. Hicks' Leonora, a wealthy young woman loved by two men who don't know they're brothers, is a good, loyal woman who would sacrifice her life for her beloved. Her performance growing stronger and more rewarding during the course of her demanding role, Hicks has a regal stage presence, excellent intonation throughout her wide range and generally fine technique except for an occasional scoop.
Muñoz delivers a thrilling performance as Azucena, the gypsy woman bent on revenge after her mother was burned at the stake. Although she is directed to be more stooped than necessary, her Azucena commands the stage. Her singing has a dramatic, sometimes thrilling intensity backed by solid technique and excellent control. She deserves the audience's accolades.
The two leading men, tenor Aaron Scheidel as Manrico, the troubadour, and baritone Emmanuel Woo as Count di Luna, are both excellent singers who interpret their roles with vocal ardor. Both have some dramatic shortcomings, however. In Scheidel's case the problem is stage presence. Even though he's tall, he doesn't command the stage as a hero should because he slumps rather than standing tall. His singing, however, is quite good, often outstanding.
Woo's vocal interpretation of the villainous Count di Luna also is excellent. He has a strong voice with a solid middle and low range, though the higher notes show some evidence of strain. He carries himself well, but his acting is limited to a few stock gestures that do little to convey his character's emotions.
Supporting roles are ably filled by mezzo-soprano Sally Mouzon as Inez, Leonora's friend, and by bass-baritone William Pickersgill as Ferrando, a sergeant under di Luna's command. Ferrando is the larger role, opening the opera by explaining the background that sets the plot in motion. With his big, solid voice and strong stage presence, Pickersgill offers a good preview of the vocal treasures in this production.
Except for some lesser roles filled by chorus members, Pickersgill is the only soloist who sings all performances. The cast not reviewed features Julia Kierstine as Leonora, Barbara Sloss as Inez, Andrew Eisenmann as Count di Luna, Ravil Atlas as Manrico and Tatiana Ishemova as Azucena.
Although most WBO principals are young professional singers, the chorus comes from the community, people who have other jobs during the day but sing with WBO for the love of it. Although the chorus has been a weak link in some past productions, such is not the case here. The men's chorus, which plays a prominent part in Il Trovatore, is solid throughout, its strength belying its small numbers. The women's chorus is featured only in the Anvil Chorus and the Nuns' Chorus. The latter poses a challenge because the women sing as they enter and seem to have difficulty hearing one another, resulting in some intonation problems.
Even though the stage is small, director David Sloss uses the space well and moves his people well, especially during the Anvil Chorus, when some characters move about the stage in preparation for battle. This effect is a credit to Sloss, who gets little help from Peter Crompton's set designs. Although the set accommodates reasonably fast scene changes and provides different playing levels, it closes the stage in, restricting the playing area. On the other hand, Barbara DuBois' lighting design is an asset.
This production updates the action from the 15th century to the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s to make the plot more understandable, according to the director's notes. Although the plot seems clear in Salvatore Cammarano's text (the opera is sung in the original Italian with English supertitles), the update works well. It allows costume designer Robyn Spencer-Crompton to delineate the rival forces by outfitting di Luna and his men in military uniforms and Manrico's forces in civilian clothing. Leonora wears simple but elegant ankle-length dresses accented by colorful scarves befitting her social rank.
Overall, this is an outstanding production, one that has its priorities squarely where they should be: on the music. And what glorious music it is.
Il Trovatore continues with performances at 8:15 p.m. Feb. 20-21 and 2 p.m. Feb. 22. For tickets call 650-424-9999, Monday-Friday, 1-6 p.m.
For more information, see the West Bay Opera home page.