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A Striking Lescaut

February 18, 2006

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By Janos Gereben

On its 50th anniversary, West Bay Opera has plenty of problems — still without a general manager and struggling for funds, as do all regional companies — but it is rising to the challenge impressively. A small company presenting three big voices, and offering a fully realized production in tiny Lucie Stern Theater, WBO did itself proud Saturday evening.

Solid musical values characterized the opening of a two-week run of Puccini's Manon Lescaut, Matthias Kuntzsch conducting a small but dedicated orchestra that progressed from inital balance problems (covering up most of the singers) to blooper-free playing and the Intermezzo following Act 3 that would have been comfortably at home in a "big house." A special contribution from Kuntzsch was the secure and consistent tempo he set and maintained through the evening.

Even at times when the orchestra was too loud, the three principals had no problem getting through. With big voices and dedicated performances, Olga Chernisheva (Manon), Percy Martinez (des Grieux), and Daniel Cilli (Lescaut) made significant Palo Alto debuts.

Olga Chernisheva (Manon)
Percy Martinez (des Grieux)

Cilli's solid, powerful Lescaut signaled the emergence of a Verdi baritone of note with excellent diction. Martinez squeezed frequently and there were small breaks in the voice, but the overall performance was that of an attractive lyric tenor with power. Dramatically, des Grieux is a thankless role (constantly tragic after the first scene, permanently self-pitying), so it was difficult to say if it was Martinez's own woodenness or the challenge of the character that made it preferable to focus on his voice.

Then there is Chernisheva: She alone is worth the 40-mile drive from San Francisco ... and even more than that. From the Volga Region, via Moscow, the soprano is a newcomer to the United States, and one hopes she'll make her home here. If she is employed as the cover for the San Francisco Opera's upcoming Manon Lescaut, there could be a "star is born" moment, although that would have to be at the cost of missing out on Karita Mattila — not a choice one would want to face.

Daniel Cilli (Lescaut)
Olga Chernisheva (Manon)

Chernisheva has a prominent voice, standing out in any situation, with effortless legato and a secure placement in the low notes, indicating the strong possibility of past (and/or future) adventures in the mezzo range. Chernisheva and Martinez were affecting in that impossible fourth act of nonstop dying (hers) and anguish (his) — somehow, mostly through excellent singing, with the orchestra in full bloom, they made it work.

James Richard Frieman's WBO Chorus followed the principals' example, singing well and acting somewhere between stiff and busy. Still, kudos to stage director David F. Ostwald for pulling together young and inexperienced talent in a presentable product. How far Ostwald had to go in marshalling nonexistent resources was clearly demonstrated by the use of women as priests and subteens as prostitutes in the deportation scene. There was no subtext or agenda here, I believe, only the lack of more appropriate personnel.

Peter Crompton's set design for Act 4

West Bay's physical production is rather amazing. Eschewing the example of the Berkeley Opera, whose "abstract sets" ably cover up obvious signs of poverty, WBO put on an ambitious "grand-opera" show with Peter Crompton's big sets on a postage-stamp stage and Callie Floor's downright opulent costumes. Of particular interest was the "vast plain on the borders of New Orleans," with a parched-land strip going from horizontal to vertical upstage, flanked on either side by an equally upright and improbably purple sky.

(Janos Gereben is a regular contributor to San Francisco Classical Voice. His e-mail address is [email protected])

©2006 Janos Gereben, all rights reserved